Beckett by Brook
Fragments by Samuel Beckett (Rough for Theatre I, Rockaby, Neither, Come and Go, Act Without Words II)
Fragments 2 (Act Without Words II), Not I, Ohio Impromptu, A Piece of Monologue)
Direction: Peter Brook, Marie-Hélène Estienne
Cast: Jos Houben, Kathryn Hunter, Marcello Magni
Producer: International Centre for Theatre Creation/Bouffes du Nord, Paris.
A paradox at the heart of Beckett is that he uses art to explore the meaninglessness of human lives, when many would say the prime purpose of art is to find meaning.
Also paradoxical is that Beckett’s probing of our insignificance, especially when delivered under the direction of Peter Brook and his long-time co-creator Marie-Hélène Estienne, is as comforting as it is bleak; a gentle mockery of the human condition and its ridiculousness.
The sorrow is that the Bouffes du Nord theatre, which Brook has made his base to pursue the truest interpretation, has been closed by the coronavirus. As a result, we risk losing the theatrical consolation of sharing as fully as possible the experience of life and of facing death – or sharing isolation, if you take Brook’s suggestion that Beckett was in solitary confinement within himself.
For almost any loss, there is solace and a locked-down Brook turns his hand, aged 95, to the new skill of directing by telephone as his cast works from various homes to create Fragments 2.
One suspects Beckett would have relished the challenge given that all his characters are post-apocalyptic. Any joy is a remote, buried memory as they have been progressively stripped of almost everything life has given them. He takes his characters so far beyond their prime, they are on the brink of becoming a disembodied, sexless shade, denuded of any of the richness that fills the gap between birth and death. His language is the epitome of self-restraint. He deliberately limits his vocabulary and reinforces the discipline by sometimes choosing to write first in non-native French and then producing an English version.
As a dramatist, he makes his task as difficult and as pure as possible with a denial of all but the most basic of props and sets.
At the most extreme, Not I’s protagonist is just a mouth.
In Act Without Words II, he makes the supreme sacrifice for a writer of eliminating speech.
His Act Without Words II binds Fragments and Fragments 2.
For the lockdown, online viewer, it’s advisable to begin with Fragments, as filmed in 2015 before an appreciative Bouffes du Nord audience, egging on the humour.
Even as lockdown reinforces the sense of denial and that the warmth of collective experience is a receding memory, Fragments 2 is softened by the context the staged version removes.
Instead of the unvarnished space and suspicion of homelessness of the Bouffes, we begin with Jos Houben, hiding under the duvet in a lived-in family home, awoken, by “a goad,” to use Beckett’s word, not in the form of a prod from a giant writer’s pen dangling from the stage ceiling, but of a child’s thrown ball.
First, we have the grumpy, unhappy version of existence that Houben played in the original theatre production.
His clothes defy his efforts to struggle into them and the child safety lock on his tablets drives his blood pressure sky-high. He plods painfully downstairs and out into a hostile world, lugs his burden around pointlessly, goes home, tears off his clothes and goes to back to bed.
After another goading, Houben plays the happy version, springing into agile life, effortlessly sliding into his clothes and smiling at the day.
The stage version makes Marcello Magni Mr Happy, a shorter, stockier, cheerful counterweight to Houben’s tousled lankiness.
In a study of casting and interpretation, Fragments 2 draws the contrast by pairing Houben’s interpretation of both parts with Magni’s interpretation of both parts as the set changes from what looks like a house in one of Paris’ more peripheral arrondissements to an elegant terrace apparently somewhere in London with original architectural features but otherwise almost as empty as the stage of the Bouffes.
Magni brings great physical humour to the unhappy man, down to donning his anti-viral mask with bad grace as he slams a rather middle-class front door behind him.
The bouncy, happy Magni who emerges from a second prod from a broom wielded by an unseen force, is familiar already from his Bouffes performance.
Fragments 2 culminates in Kathryn Hunter’s playful, speeded-up take on Act Without Words II and instead of the timeless, tramp-like luggers of great sack-fuls of burden, she is a moustachioed City-type heading for futile activity on an Apple laptop.
But first all three actors show us even more of their mettle with fragments not included in the stage production.
Hunter is compelling as Not I. She gets round Beckett’s elaborate instructions that she should appear as just a mouth by reading them. She then disembodies herself by recording the woman protagonist’s rare eruption of speech. The recording is played while she is filmed acting her way through the sensation of detachment. She looks on, without any feeling of suffering as theoretically traumatic events mean she is never loved and almost never speaks until an ill-defined event stirs her into the outburst we witness, reminiscent of a desert plant flowering after a once-in-a-decade rainfall.
Were there an audience, there would be an encore.
For his tour de force, Houben leaves behind the duvet and heads to what looks like the attic for the mysterious, ghostly Ohio Impromptu.
It’s framed by darkness, literally as our screens are narrowed by black margins left and right and the rhythm of Houben’s lilting performance crafts the tension between the chill of loss and regret and the comforting sense of continuity of folk narration.
Darkness and light are even more central to Magni’s interpretation of A Piece of Monologue.
Instead of struggling to light an old-fashioned oil lamp, Magni has matches, his weakening breath and a collapsing candle as he doesn’t so much rage as resign himself to the dying of the light.
In a mesmerising performance we watch his absorption not just in trying to create light, but in tasks that hint at the cosmic and the circularity of life for a character whose “birth was the death of him”.
We watch his patient, painstaking drawing of what could be a planet surrounded by the black void of the cosmos, his sifting of a round pot of black earth, the domesticity of peeling potatoes and then his protracted battle to light a candle that refuses to stay vertical. It’s comic, tragic and neither; it’s just how it is, just as these actors raison d’être is to act and Beckett’s was to write, even though it was as much torment as joy. It’s about trying to share experience and the meaning, in so far as there is one, is that it’s a triumph in the face of overwhelming odds.
Barbara Lewis © 2020.