FringeReview UK 2018
Gare St Lazare Ireland are returning to The Print Room’s Coronet with directors Judy Hegarty Lovett and Conor Lovett, together with Stephen Dillane and composer/sound designer/performer Mel Mercier for another instalment of their Beckett series dramatizing his fiction. No simple circular stage either. Because the audience is seated on it, rather uncomfortably. Lovett, Dillane and Mercier haunt a lit strip downstage in front of the audience in the middle, facing what in other productions are their own empty seats. Lovett and Dillane stalk around them, aided by Simon Bennison’s imaginative use of lighting. Till May 19th.
There’s a litany of repeated phrases in this wondrous palimpsest of a Beckett text, but that doesn’t mean we’re getting a re-run of what we found miraculously here in 2016.
Gare St Lazare Ireland are returning to The Print Room’s Coronet with directors Judy Hegarty Lovett and Conor Lovett, together with Stephen Dillane and composer/sound designer/performer Mel Mercier for another instalment of their Beckett series dramatizing his fiction. And everything’s inside out.
But How It Is – Beckett’s last full-length fiction from 1961 – isn’t conceived and staged with anything like the simplicity of the 2016 series. And instead of Lovett’s performing say the whole Trilogy on one night (Malloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable) this time we get a microcosmic inversion: Part One of How It Is! That’s ‘Before Pim’ Part Two ‘With Pim’ we’re told by Hegarty Lovett herself, will follow. I assume that includes Part Three ‘After Pim’ as well! Part One’s about the recognition that others have slipped down into the mud like himself, the narrator finds another, perhaps, forming a couple of like species.
No simple circular stage either. Because the audience is seated on it, rather uncomfortably. Lovett, Dillane and Mercier haunt a lit strip downstage in front of the audience in the middle, facing what in other productions are their own empty seats. Lovett and Dillane stalk around them, aided by Simon Bennison’s imaginative use of lighting. Footlights now glare back at us, illumine performers, the strip of light fades or intensifies. Lights overhead suddenly reveal derelict spaces of the old Coronet cinema, in verdegris peeled walls and old projection apertures, as well as rafters. The forsaken upper circle gets haunted by Lovett, or Mercier. Dillane or Lovett apparate from side doors or the auditorium’s. Bennison’s opened a seam into the past. It’s not difficult to imagine the doubled persona middling in mud. At key points the whoosh of Mercier’s sound design allows the stab of contemporary sirens to break the craggy soundscape.
If this is a birth-to-age piece, we’re naturally not getting a previous life straight but slant. It’s a third of the way in as Lovett recalls sunlight and his mother looking down on him ‘with a severe love’. There’s the falling to love, the strange pursuit, all obliquely scratched to the scalloped edges of narrative.
‘I tell it as I hear it’ Lovett and his sharper shadow Dillane walk along that strip – their doubleness becomes clearer in the Part Two just mentioned, but here we take them as one person. A man in the pink as this time, his imagined sack contains both tins and a tin-opener. There have been both but infrequently together.
It’s a joyous conjunction. He’ll not starve. If the protagonist sinks in mud he seems somehow assured of a long sinking. The palimpsests of Lovett’s hesitant hands-to-side introversion contrast with Dillane’s expansive sharp voice English assumptions. Beckett might have suggested in his musical way Schumann’s extrovert Florestan and introvert Eusebius. But there’s a sense of Protestant Ascendancy (Becket’s class) and Irish Catholicism certainly placed in uneasy conjunction as they echo, foreshadow blend and fall mute as just one speaks from different points of the Coronet.
That might seem impossibly allusive. But How It Is teases you with allusions and plays with extrinsic references beyond Beckett’s usage elsewhere – though there’s plenty early on in his writing. It’s a formally innovative work, dramatized or novelised, but it’s different too, less simply Beckett’s world.
There’s not just the ‘Douty Gouty Shopkeeper’ of Joyce’s parody of the literary trinity, with recurring jokes of Dante-esque ‘Abandon hope’ and the throwaway ‘to be or not to be – no we’re not going there’ to gales of relieved laughter: something to respond to. Shakespeare’s easy; but Beckett will floor you – literally in the mud – with Dante as he made clear to a BBC producer.
Beckett’s referencing Dante’s Inferno Canto VII and the character Belacqua. Sloth’s the man:
Set in the slime, they say: ‘We were sullen, with
no pleasure in the sweet, sun-gladdened air,
carrying in our souls the fumes of sloth.
Now we are sullen in this black ooze’ – where
they hymn this in their throats with a gurgling sound
because they cannot form the words down there
Full of amused self-accusation, sloth, complete inertia. Familiar? Beckett can trump that as it were:
The knees drawn up the back bent in a hoop the tiny head near the knees curled round the sack Belacqua fallen over on his side tired of waiting forgotten of the hearts where grace abides asleep
Such explicitness begs at least a brief stab of light, but it’d be daft to dwell on it.
Nevertheless this production adds tropes of its own. Towards the end Lovett brings a ladder to scale the upper circle where Dillane currently lurks. Neither ascend or descend, the route’s not taken, there’s no salvation. But there’s only one ladder in Irish literature worth noting, sited in the mud we’re called on to imagine the protagonists sinking in.
Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.
Yeats’ ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’ was finished months before his death. In another poem ‘Crazy Jane Talks With the Bishop’ we get a clear sense of Yeats’ meaning, where ‘love has pitched his mansion in/the place of excrement’. It’s a superb trope brought out by Gare St Lazare, a hidden reference brought vividly to life for those of us just able to catch a glint of a smile.
We’re taken to crescendos of identification, fade-outs and troubling substitutions – Mercier looks so much like Lovett there’s a further teasing here. This is a unique realising of Beckett, a concretising of image, even what poetics refers to portentously as deep image with the Yeats. Such a teasingly impure text gets a far more hybrid response too from this astounding company. At the end there’s a conjunction of every effect and… you’re somewhere in the middle of a text. In exquisite discomfort.
At just one hour forty five minutes it’s not an exhausting experience at least in one dimension. You’ll have to see this. It’s in no way a continuation of their previous Beckett. and it’s immersive, outstanding, unrepeatable and unimaginable anywhere else: Gare St Lazare, and in the UK, no-one but the Print Room it seems would dare to stage it.