Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Thursday 21 November 2019

Stage: Bates sinks his teeth into a darker side of Samuel Beckett

Odd couple: In Search of Mr B with Michael Bates and Bryan Murray
Odd couple: In Search of Mr B with Michael Bates and Bryan Murray

Maggie Armstrong

This column comes to you after a long wait. It was on a small stage in greater Dublin one dark and dismal night that an actor sat next to a coffin, gazing with mad, glazed eyes at the audience, which was small.

It was a wretched night, so not a full turn-out for the exciting opening night of the latest play by Belfast playwright Brian McAvera, In Search of Mr B, a debut production from the newly-formed theatre company Directions Out. It's been 18 months since its founder, Joe Devlin, left the Focus Theatre, and this play has been months in rehearsals. The audience had kindly agreed to wait because a journalist was late.

Someone on the tram had given me the wrong Directions to the Civic Theatre in Tallaght, which is a little further along the Luas red line than remembered. In Search of Mr B indeed. But actor Bryan Murray looked not the least ruffled when your correspondent crashed into the theatre 20 minutes late and weather-beaten by storms. He seemed to be enjoying that awkwardness peculiar to small intimate theatres.

An organ sounded, thunder clapped - fake, hammer horror thunder this time - the doll blinked and swivelled his neck into action.

Embalmed in face paint and dressed in a satin tricolour waistcoat and dickie bow, this was a ventriloquist's doll belonging to Samuel Beckett's unconscious. In In Search of Mr B, Beckett wakes up as a vampire and confronts his past through a series of interrogations from this doll. You could call it vaudevillian Gothic.

I thought the doll had been waiting a long time, until the coffin lid creaked open and a vampire emerged: Samuel Beckett, of course.

If the coffin was uncomfortable, actor Michael Bates showed no sign of it. "Who were we waiting for anyway?" he admonished the audience, and there followed a night of fun and verbose put-downs, a meaty script broken up by scores from horror films and music halls, with kitsch sound effects.

If it's biographical value you're looking for, Brian McAvera has produced some juicy morsels from Beckett's early life. The teasing from the doll focuses on our great 20th century playwright's romantic mishaps, his poorly received early works, and his more bad-ass side - joining the French Resistance and being stabbed on the streets of Paris by a pimp. It gets personal, and cruel.

After the play we spoke to Brian McAvera. "I thought: a man who was obsessed with death and putrefaction, what better metaphor for him than a vampire?" he said.

Michael Bates was having a glass of wine too. "Sorry we were so late, was it very uncomfortable in the coffin?" I asked.

"No, it wasn't too bad. There's an air hole in the lid," he said politely.

"Oh, I must remember to block that up," said McAvera.

"One of the things that I wanted to do," he went on, "was to rescue Beckett from the academics. We have this solemn, po-faced attitude to Beckett, we place him on a pedestal. He is used for cultural tourism, but much like Joyce, he was ignored by the Irish for most of his lifetime."

This little play certainly takes Beckett down, and how better to get at any of us than by digging up our sordid sexual encounters. Beckett is no Nobel Laureate, European literary celebrity or star athlete in this play as he was in real life. He is a gangly Irish lad starved of love and sex (I turned to a few Beckett biographies afterwards and indeed his 20s were a miserable time).

But it's all to be taken lightly. Mr B is not Samuel Beckett. Anyone who met Beckett talks about his great physical presence, gravitas and style, a man who dressed in fine tweeds and smoked cigarillos, and only spoke when the words counted. This Beckett is awkward and twerpy, neurotic, "a thin streak of misery", as the doll reminds him.

But like the real man, his lines are most funny: the oft-quoted but never old comment about the boys in his elite boarding school being like double cream, "rich and thick".

And when Mr B says "I can take care of myself". "Aha, Mr B the boxer," jousts the doll. "That was a long time ago." Maybe you had to be there. Anyway, why not go along? It's worth the wait.

In Search of Mister B finishes at the Civic Theatre, Tallaght tonight and moves to the Viking Theatre, Clontarf, April 6 to 18; The Draiocht, Blanchardstown, April 21 and Smock Alley Theatre, Temple Bar, April 27 to May 2.

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