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FringeReview UK 2022

How It Is Part 2

Gare St Lazare, The Coronet Theatre in association with The Everyman (Cork)

Genre: Adaptation, Drama, European Theatre, Experimental, Immersive, Live Literature, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: The Coronet Theatre


Low Down

Gare St Lazare Ireland return to The Coronet with directors Judy Hegarty Lovett and Conor Lovett, together with Stephen Dillane and composer/sound designer/performer Mel Mercier for the second instalment of How It Is. It continues their Beckett series dramatising his fiction.

Directed and designed by Judy Hegarty Lovett, Music performed by Composer Mel Mercier and the Irish Gamelan Orchestra, Cathal Roche (soprano) and Claudia Schwab. Lighting Simon Bennison, Lighting assistant and board operated by Hanan Sheedy (Original lighting design Cork 2019, by Michael Hurley).

Till May 7th.


After a covid-enforced absence Gare St Lazare Ireland return to the Coronet with directors Judy Hegarty Lovett and Conor Lovett, together with Stephen Dillane and composer/sound designer/performer Mel Mercier for the second instalment of their three-part Beckett How It Is.

The three parts can be experienced as stand-alones – a Beckett term if ever there was; or of course as a cubist attempt on a life. The first was staged here in 2018. After hours of zoom-rehearsals – a spectral existence also worthy of Beckett – Part 2’s even more exciting, sonically various, challenging enough for a ghost to ram a can opener into you.

The Coronet have faithfully collaborated since 2016 in this dazzling series dramatising Beckett’s fiction. And mounting hybrids like Up All Night, in essence a Beckett cabaret.

With How It Is Part 2, first staged in 2019 in Cork, everything’s inside out. In addition to the Coronet’s raked horseshoe seating, audience are arrayed opposite – upstage in traverse; a bit differently to Part 1 where some sat on the stage. This echoes the Cork arrangement with local modifications – the original’s been described as more of an installation. Even for the Coronet, it’s singular. There’s a waft of haze too, barely noticeable from where I sat.

This time as in Part 1, there’s the twelve-part Irish Gamelan Orchestra, with music performed by composer Mel Mercier and Cathal Roche (soprano) and Claudia Schwab. Bookending the performance, they apparate one hour forty-five into it too, just over two-thirds: it slowly drowns Lovett’s voice, shimmering as if from inside his head. The last ends after an intensifying violin tone (violin? didn’t actually see it) with an almost metronomic tick, a clear intimation. The gamelans are set on Persian rugs, dazzling over an almost domestic setting. Their conjunction with the whole’s an occult, miraculous, quibbling thing; a cheerful yoking of two thoroughly alien aesthetics. But it’s spectral too, and that’s a match.

And we start with Cathal Roche – lit on the seating’s right-hand, half up the stairs – rendering Schubert’s final song from Winterreisse: ‘Der Leiermann’: ‘The Hurdy-Gurdy Man’. The rejected lover at the end of his winter’s journey encounters a dejected player, no pennies in his tray, grinding on and on. He goes with him into the snow. Death? Dream? Bleak companionship? But this equivocal doubleness in Schubert is an inspired fit.

It’s one of few musical moments anywhere that threatens to overwhelm even Beckett. But then he loved Schubert (his ‘Death and the Maiden’ String Quartet haunts All That Fall). This doubleness if not doppelganger – the men are different ages, but then the narrator’s at different points in his life – preludes the two performers: the same unnamed person narrating an abusive relationship with offstage, under-stage Pim.

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. Instead of Lovett’s performing say the whole Trilogy on one night (Malloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable), in 2018 and now 2022 we get a microcosmic inversion, as a shorter novel gets dilated. In Part 1 of How It Is we’re reminded here, it was ‘Before Pim’ Part Two ‘With Pim’ we’re told by the performers, repeatedly; proleptically Part 3 is heralded and throughout we’re told:

me alone in the dark the mud end at last of part two how it was with Pim leaving at last only part three and last…

Around the horseshoe stage on either side we’re enfiladed as Lovett and Dillane haunt auditorium steps each side of the audience or in the middle, facing what in other productions are their own empty seats.

They stalk around, aided by Simon Bennison’s pierced lighting. Footlights glare back at us, illumine performers, strips of light fade or intensify. Lights suddenly reveal derelict spaces of the old Coronet cinema, in verdegris peeled walls and old projection apertures. At one point Dillane climbs into one. Dillane or Lovett apparate from side doors or the auditorium’s. Or hover above in shadow. Bennison’s opened a seam into the past. It’s not difficult to imagine the doubled persona middling in mud.

Schubert’s song is a shrewd invocation of Beckett. Looking at the way this production asserts doubleness Beckett himself might have suggested in his musical way Schumann’s extrovert Florestan and introvert Eusebius. If he’d countenance it at all.

But as in Part 1 there’s a sense in the two performers of Protestant Ascendancy (roughly Beckett’s class) and Irish Catholicism placed in uneasy conjunction. Joyce, say. Now there’s an agon. They echo, foreshadow, blend and fall mute as just one speaks from different points of the Coronet. Occasionally they intone in unison at handover points. The pair certainly hum round like satellites, meteors, or electrons, burning themselves off a centripetal force that never quite sucks them in.

Dillane’s range and projection is denotative. There’s vocal terracing, a whole tease of light irony and jokes. He speeds up presto at points; authoritative, mordant in his irony, suavely dangerous. There’s a rasp of the great Beckett actor Patrick Magee, though anglicised. Lovett’s musical, even-paced, hypnotic, wryly hilarious, understated, quiet with a hint of doubt. He has his own glint of a tease too, the flick of an eye, or head. Full of a connotative amplitude.

Part 2 is the most disturbed section. Part 1 with the narrator crawling through mud, trawling a sack of tin cans and can-opener he possesses for no reason known to him, seems simpler (dare I say); certainly shorter in performance though textually only by four pages.

But now we’re introduced to the equally lost character Pim, heralded at the end of Part 1. Not that he ever speaks in his own words; at best he’s refracted in narrated howls. As after a honeymoon of twoness and sequent mutual antagonism and taunts, the narrator abuses him, sticks his nails in Pim’s face, at one point thrusts a can-opener into his buttocks.

But is Pim a mere extension as it were? From the start the narrator’s fascinated by orchestrating his own biological ineptitude – but as a cabinet of curiosities:

my arm bends therefore my right its preferable which reduced from very obtuse to very acute the angle between the humerus and the other the anatomy the geometry and my right hand seeks his lips…

Where does one start and the other end? This comedy of anatomical instants extends to exploring Pim’s, with a vivisectionist’s fascination. As Andrew Marvell wrote to his nephew in 1676: ‘it is if one has to dissect oneself, and read the anatomy lesson.’ What’s changed? Becket’s more humorous. And equivocal:

If he wants me to leave him yes in peace… if he thinks I’ll leave him no I’ll stay where I am yes glued to him yes tormenting him yes eternally yes

There’s finally a reconcilement of sorts, then Pim abruptly vanishes.

One day come back to myself… to find myself alone in the dark the mud and at last of part two how it was with Pim leaving at last only part three…

Like (Marvell again) ‘stars so truly parallel’ the actors ‘never meet’ but when they do it’s a touching conjunction of the mind. Then Dillane makes tea for Lovett near the old aperture he perched in. Of course it raises a laugh. There’s quite a few. Didn’t I say How It Is is funny?

Beckett’s litanic world – all those overlaps and modifications – owns a kind of horizontal anaphora: phrases get repeated, seem the start of another phrase, though often deceptively. It’s as if you might arrange them vertically and get the Beatitudes chanted in Purgatory.

And there’s that orchestra: magical, completely off the bouncing walls as far as Beckettian logic goes. Their presence here might seem impossibly allusive. But How It Is teases you with allusions and plays with extrinsic references beyond Beckett’s usage elsewhere – though first drafts were full of personal ones, pared back. It’s a formally innovative work to start with, dramatised or novelised; but here it’s different too, less simply Beckett’s world. And far easier in this form to apprehend.

At one hour forty-five Part 1 wasn’t an exhausting experience, at least in one dimension. Part 2 comes in at two-hours thirty-five. There’s a sense that with two performers we’re not lulled with one rhythm. But with two there’s potentially a slight break in concentration. Lovett’s Trilogy lasted three hours, but How It Is is more difficult prose. Certainly too much for one actor, and even if not, maybe for us. A film of all three parts is extant, and this production cries out for a second visit.

Even so, you’ll have to see this once if you love Beckett, or modern theatre. It’s certainly a once-in-a-lifetime, or perhaps thrice-in-the-same. Whatever, realised here it’s theatrical: immersive, outstanding, unrepeatable and unimaginable anywhere else. Only Gare St Lazare could imagine it; and in the UK, no-one but the Coronet would dare to stage it.