Monday 20 May 2019

Theatre: Less Is More; and a gender debate

Absorbing: Amy Conroy, Will O' Connell and Mark Fitzgerald in Luck Just Kissed You Hello' at the Mick Lally Theatre at the Galway Arts Festival
Absorbing: Amy Conroy, Will O' Connell and Mark Fitzgerald in Luck Just Kissed You Hello' at the Mick Lally Theatre at the Galway Arts Festival

Emer O'Kelly

Beckett wrote Lessness in French, calling it Sans; the title of his English translation is significantly different in meaning. Further, he used the word "lessness" in other contexts to mean "minimal". And yet the 1970 short story performed by Olwen Fouere (in a co-production between her own company The Emergency Room, Cusack Projects, and the Galway Arts Festival) is an extraordinary exposition of emotional breadth. And for that, Fouere's performance must take the credit.

Barely 1500 words long in total, each sentence in Lessness is repeated twice, apparently randomly as though almost flung onto the page to see what might happen. But the hand that throws them is that of a creator, a kind of literary godhead for whom even chaos is part of the plan.

The images surge across the consciousness, a slow-moving tide in a bereft world. They start to draw a vast desert of ash, bleak and hopeless; as the picture forms the image changes mockingly to a landscape of ruins, equally bleak but a construct of humanity while the desert may be a manifestation of harsh nature…. or perhaps reduced to ash by the hand of humanity. There is, after all, a "little body grey face features slit and little holes two pale blue." Suddenly the image is of a bewildered child, lost and seeking: but seeking what? Salvation? Solace?

Then the words repeat "small grey upright body" but this time the sentence continues: "past wiped out and lessness." The "little body" occurs again, insistently, "little block genitals overrun arse a single block grey crack overrun." The picture flashes: a child's mutilated body. Or an adult's: minimised in the vastness of time and space?

There have been treatises written about Lessness: it remains one of Beckett's most debated works. On the page, its staging seems impossible; but that was before Olwen Fouere brought her particular raging rigour to bear on it. So precise is she in movement and nuance (and so minimalist) that she gives the impression of being the human incarnation of a piece of antique parchment stretched to cracking point on an iron frame. She is all greyness, and yet the depths that have been reached so that feeling is kept in check somehow become a kind of encompassing warmth (although each individual reaction will always be intensely personal and others may react differently) but the image which this critic carried away was "Never but dream the days and nights made of dreams of other nights better days. He will live again the space of a step it will be day and night again over him the endlessness."

The staging and design (a stark refectory table backed by a grey screen that seems to mock a rainbow as occasional straight bands of grey light sweep up it) is by Fouere herself with Kellie Hughes, Sarah Jane Sheils and John Crudden, and the whole adds up to an experience that pervades the consciousness as a kind of meditative tease which is strangely optimistic. Whether Beckett would have approved is anybody's guess; but it is a magnificent theatrical achievement.

When Tennessee Williams wrote Suddenly Last Summer, audiences were shocked at its theme; but there was a school of thought which gave him credit for attempting to deal with "the last taboo" (cannibalism.) That was barely more than half a century ago, and we have found many more taboos to break since. When Williams was writing they were buried so deep that they were not even acknowledged. Now, we can see a funny, thought-provoking and tender play about trans-sexualism, not in America's bigoted deep South, but in Roman Catholic Ireland. Art and its frontiers have come a long way.

Mark and his twin brother Gary have come home to attend the death bed of the father neither of them has cause to love. Their old school friend Sullivan, on the other hand, has fond memories of "Big Ted Donovan", perhaps because Sullivan is the prototype of the kind of man Donovan approved of: a pint-drinking, conventional macho suburban male. Mark, though, was once Laura, and is named as such in her-his father's will. To donate their father's organs as a gesture of reparation to the society the twins believe the old man has failed, Mark will have to sign the forms as Laura.

Amy Conroy's Luck Just Kissed You Hello is a rare achievement, a play that is polemical while remaining provocative, funny, and intensely moving, as the three different "types" of male explore what it is to be just that.

Mark has lost his girl-friend: when they began living together he was still Laura, and the love object was lesbian. She wanted to stay when Laura became Mark, but he was having none of it: she had to love him as a man, not a woman. Gary, on the other hand, lives in Paris: he's gay, with a sophisticated, apparently enviable life. And Sullivan, about to be a father, is faced with the complexities of the world's expectations of even the most insignificant of men.

Throw in long shadows of the sadism of which a parent can be capable, painted with real insight (if at times handled a bit awkwardly in theatrical terms) and you have a truly absorbing piece of theatre, with a dazzlingly accomplished performance as Mark from the author herself, and splendid support from Will O'Connell as Gary and Mark Fitzgerald as Sullivan.

Catriona McLaughlin directs in a convincing set by Aedin Cosgrove lit by John Crudden. It's a HotForTheatre production in co-operation with Galway Arts Festival, and will transfer to the Dublin International Theatre Festival in the autumn.

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