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Fascinating interpretation of Beckett's French novel

Gare St Lazare Players triumph in 'How It Is', says Emer O'Kelly


Conor Lovett (left) and Stephen Dillane in a scene from How It Is by Samuel Beckett - A Digital Preview

Conor Lovett (left) and Stephen Dillane in a scene from How It Is by Samuel Beckett - A Digital Preview

Conor Lovett (left) and Stephen Dillane in a scene from How It Is by Samuel Beckett - A Digital Preview

Cork's Gare St Lazare Players (Conor Lovett and Judy Hegarty-Lovett) have a well-deserved international reputation as Beckett interpreters. And since their return to Ireland from Paris in 2016, they have been developing what may well be the crowning success of their career with Beckett's How It Is, the 1961 novel written in French and translated in 1964.

They have already staged Parts One and Two, in co-operation with the Everyman and London's Coronet Theatre, and have almost completed the rehearsal process for Part Three, with a plan to present the full work later in the year in London.

It has always been Gare St Lazare's process to involve the audience with their progress, and they provide a fascinating insight into the "how" of theatre for anyone who is interested. But in the digital "preview" of last weekend, they made it a fascinating evening of theatre, even for those who usually prefer to see only the finished work.

In Part One, the narrator is alone in a world of mud; it and the darkness are the only certainties as he crawls along, until various events and flashbacks cross his mind from the outside world of his past… if there was a past. In Part Two he is mysteriously joined by "another", Pim, and the two remain motionless in the dark and mud, debating the possible existence of others like them. But the narrator can only speak of his life through his inner self, when he is no longer deafened by the effort of panting. Does staying alive preclude anything other than breathing, Beckett seems to be asking.

In Part Three, the narrator has been abandoned by Pim, but remains motionless, no longer making the effort to move through the mud and dark, the reminiscences of Part One abandoned now as never having been a present.

The "loss of speech so dearly regained" has been snatched away in the effort of breathing.

Directing the pieces as a kind of composite extract that is yet a whole, Hegarty-Lovett has abandoned any concept, however bleak, of a stage, with Conor Lovett and Stephen Dillane nakedly tormented in close-up. Both of the actors manage to become a world of eyes; middle-aged both, and what would normally be considered handsome, the normal wear and tear lines of well-lived lives become tracks of despair across their faces, a kind of lake from which the eyes offer everything.

The message may be nihilistic, but experience softens the soul: it seems to be the way Beckett can always offer hope, even from the depths.

The Irish Gamelan Orchestra under Mel Mercier joins them for Part Three, playing Schubert's 'Die Liermann' from Die Winterreise, and Mercier's music is an introduction throughout sung by Mark Padmore with layered voices through Parts One and Two.

The production was filmed by Grant Gee and Louis Hegarty-Lovett, who manage to create a moving pit of shadows which become a mirror of the pitfalls to which the text alerts humanity.

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And given that the first two parts have been filmed several years ago, the continuity of the live insert of a section of Part Three has a startling continuity, the mood created by Lovett and Dillane becoming almost brisk in its despair, a distillation of acceptance. The narrator knows, behind the voice, his own or Pim's, he is again abandoned. It could be no other way from the dawn of time; he's aware of this, almost amused by it.

You become aware that the title of the piece was a sly joke: How It Is translates (in the original French) as Comment C'est, a play on the verb "to begin". It seems, perhaps, to suggest a kind of insouciance, even from the pit.

And it's terrific theatre.