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FringeReview UK 2016

Low Down

Judy Hegarty Lovett and Conor Lovett bring more of their Gare St Lazare Ireland Beckett in London season to The Print Room’s Coronet in a series of dramatizations of his fiction. Eighty-five minutes sees First Love enacted.

Warning: Contains Spoilers


Judy Hegarty Lovett and Conor Lovett bring three weeks of their Gare St Lazare Ireland Beckett in London to the most sympathetic space in London. That is the Print Room’s Coronet’s a shambles in progress. These are all what Beckett termed his ‘important work’: fictions.

Amidst this the idiosyncratic Print Room’s friendly Coronet team continue hosting the Beckett. Still, it’s no accident there was an Irishwoman outside begging alms. Thirties décor, scraped walls, chipped dolphins conjure some long-closed music hall. The rug-strewn stalls do service as a bar, shelving at an angle. The circular stage is raised to the level of the circle which is all the theatre there is. Restorations are threatened though something will die.

Eighty minutes sees First Love enacted in the greater naturalism that The End – Beckett’s first post-war fiction – suggests. Contrasts make the shows as dramatized here complementary. It’s here alternately double-billed with The End or like that show, seen as a stand-alone.

Both shows are where to start with Beckett, and Lovett’s narration with just two benches as props (there are none in the Trilogy) unlike The End, stay upended, as if Hegarty Lovett sees First Love as a kind of antipode of The End. The energy is yet again different from that piece let alone the Trilogy. The End bespeaks a supine man; First Love with the benches priapic tell it all slant.

In First Love is Beckett’s beginning shortly after World War Two, with only The End and Murphy behind him. It’s also where he first writes wholly in French.

We begin with a very similar opening to The End or indeed Molloy. The unnamed narrator is forced after his father’s death to quit the family home, though he suspects he’s being defrauded. There’s much shuttling to and from his father’s gravestone as he’s interested in his father’s death-day, then realizes he needs his birth year too, to fix his own trajectory, at twenty-five the youngest of any identifiable Beckett protagonist who proclaims the antimonies and limits of his sympathy straight off: ‘I associate, rightly or wrongly, my marriage with the death of my father, in time.’ He prefers graveyards, feeling the living are more deliquescent.

What’s different is the overt humour, and for the first third of the narrative you see careful shuffling from home to a park bench as shabby picaresque. Lovett here narrates meeting with Lulu, a prostitute using the bench, for obscure reasons. Perhaps she’s drawn to the young man who asks nothing of her and they have sex. This apparent congeniality is occasionally punctured with Lovett’s habitual hesitations and undercutting of the Beckett pause which this time doesn’t seek audience reminders as elsewhere but sudden concentration.

For a third of the monologue the story’s terraced with winsome asides on the detritus of the father’s house, expulsion and lock-out coinciding with anxiety-induced constipation that meant the protagonist was taken as it were with his trousers down.

The protagonist has ‘heard of the thing’ called love at ‘home, in school, in brothel and church.’ He’s study love or at least its conventions ‘in prose and verse. . .in six of seven languages, both dead and living.’ This is however how he treats it.

Details of lovesickness abound. Inscribing lulu’s name with his finger in a cowpat then licking it seem grotesqueries even for Beckett. After Lulu’s further advances he says ‘I thought of kicking her in the cunt’ and you’re up against deeper aggression than elsewhere and if the language wasn’t so self-lacerating too you’d read naked misogyny here too. When Lovett shortly after refers to the audience as ‘you cunts’ you realize why the piece wasn’t published till 1973. It’s deeply unsettling. Lovett doesn’t flinch from the textual growl.

It’s at this point a third-way through that Lovett delivers a sudden coup, an explosion of ‘no’ and the narrative suddenly stops. It’s explosive, unlike anything else in this series, and Lovett’s gesture changes the whole architecture of the piece: there are further less violent stops, not of recall but emotional switchbacks, overload, the state of being overwhelmed. We realize the trajectory of First Love in this production is not of diminuendo but of attraction-repulsion, of fixed duration, a death-to-birth piece waiting to die quickly.

After the first sexual encounter Lovett’s character asks Lulu (‘or Anna’) to visit him ‘less often, far less often, less often to the point of no more.’ But those benches rear priapically and there’s an admission of concupiscence or plain erection: thus ‘thoughts were all of Lulu.’

Then Lulu announces she’s pregnant, the baby his. She strips for proof – which she’s done several times from the start to arouse him – showing her breasts. ‘The haloes are darkening already,’ she says. ‘Abort, abort,’ he ripostes. ‘And they’ll blush like new.’ He declared once he left Ireland the place of his failed abortion. In a sense that’s what the latter part of the narrative conveys, the grisly details of home life in the flat Lulu’s brought him to and his final decision.

What we’re witnessing, as Lovett presents, is a key shift from the last of early Beckett to mature protagonist. By the end of First Love, we’re obliquely near to the Trilogy at a different angle to the more obvious The End. Here, though is something unique to Beckett outside the drama, taken from the story’s tone. Lovett gimlets his eyes over the audience as if looking for an Asperger-sufferer’s confrontation with social norms, or greater aggression, raking rows and fixing on individuals. It’s unnerving to note he remembers faces (as became apparent after the performance) which considering the intensity of his inwardness, is remarkable.

Again Lovett revels in Beckett’s sourly fresh humorously-twisted naturalism. Being a briefer more direct narrative I hadn’t expected surprises but the architecture of this production is clearer here than anywhere else, that punctuation of silences and sudden withdrawals presaging the final one.

What also makes this outstanding is that odious thing, comparison. Gare St Lazare’s earlier production at the 2011 Brighton Festival ran if memory serves for exactly an hour – quite possibly the time allotted. That this one which doesn’t dawdle takes nearly 85 minutes tells you of details accrued since, accumulations of a corner of the mouth: each withers its arrival and strikes further. And the Coronet’s spherical luxury.

Like The End lighting here more falls more constant than the shafts in the Trilogy – spring and summer are drizzled in by Lovettt, though all seasons are shiveringly invoked. Arvo Part’s Fratres fades in at the start – like the Gorecki or Schnittke elsewhere

Lovett never leaves the circle, always ranging eyes over the audience. Again an outstandingly clean production of an outstanding performance: a young misanthrope obsessed with degradation. Here the end is quizzical, abrupt:   ‘if we love…. or not’ verbally as well as physically turning on its heel.