I went to see a trio of short Beckett plays at the Cambridge Arts Theatre a few days ago, and I arrived in the foyer four minutes before the show started with a slightly run-ragged soul – you know, I’m sure, the state of being where you’ve been running (metaphorically) for a long time and tending to multiple important fires that must not go out in your life, and your holiday is just over the next hill, but you need to keep going…a little longer. I didn’t really think I had time for the theatre, for Beckett, to be ‘out’. But – of course – it was worth it.
I knew a little about Samuel Beckett from my English studies – that he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature, that he was artistically oriented on the squeaking, abstract hinge between modernism and post-modernism, that he was Irish – but having never studied him directly or inquired more deeply on my own, that was about it, and I had never seen any of his plays performed before. This show – three short one-act plays from his late period, performed one after the other with brief pauses between them – Not I (1972), Footfalls (1975), and Rockaby (1980) – was produced by the Royal Court Theatre and is now making its way around the country on a tour after a critically-acclaimed run in the West End. I didn’t know any of that before I stepped into the theatre – a friend had just texted at the last minute with the offer of a free ticket, and so I finished what I was doing and rushed there. I learned afterwards that the production links directly back to Beckett himself: that the director was Walter Asmus, Beckett’s longtime friend and collaborator and the director of a production of Waiting for Godot widely described as ‘the definitive one’; also that the actress for each of these one-woman shows, Lisa Dwan, was tutored for the play Not I by Billie Whitelaw, who performed the role at its 1973 premiere and who was personally coached for the part by Beckett himself.
But it felt good to not know. It was interesting to take a tired soul into the theatre and see what happened to it there and to encounter Beckett directly for the first time with no previously determined critical overlay. To discover that something coiled up tight inside me stretched out and relaxed in response to the absence of light and the absence of sense. Because the first thing that happened was that we were engulfed in darkness, and a single, small spotlight appeared on a mouth hovering five feet in the air above the stage, which spoke a stream-of-consciousness jumble of words spoken at the speed of thought. This was the first play, Not I. My mind couldn’t follow any perceived trail of coherence through the work, because it was a collage, just snapshots of thoughts, spoken lightning fast. And so my mind gave up – and relaxed (deeply…for the first time in ages). And the dark felt so dark…it made me feel liberated from my body in a way, from the clothes I chose to wear, my identity, my friend beside me – it felt like I was also hovering, a disembodied being or consciousness – just thoughts. The words were the mundane mixed in with the profound, mixed up with the profound, with contemplations of mortality hidden under and sometimes bursting out from thoughts about the everyday. It was riveting and powerful.
The second piece, Footfalls, is about a woman, May, pacing in exactly repetitive steps, presumably outside the door of her dying mother’s room. During this play my delight with Beckett crystallised. What I loved about Beckett’s writing was the way the sublime echoed out of the simple. Extras were stripped out. It is suggested that this woman is mentally disordered, and that she must pace, and a voiceover of her mother asks, ‘Will you never have done revolving it all?’, and then ‘it all’ is repeated, with the questions echoing within this compact phrase left unanswered, like a stone dropped into a subterranean cave. There is an unlimited potential significance to the phrase. Beckett had a close relationship with James Joyce and at a crucial juncture in his artistic development wrote:
“I realized that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, [being] in control of one’s material. He was always adding to it; you only have to look at his proofs to see that. I realized that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than in adding.”
The effect of this subtracting is increasing abstracting: via the removal of concrete, linear contexts in storytelling, Beckett is releasing the power of the void, of darkness, mystery, potential, of the fragrant possibilities of unanswered questions. ‘It all’ revolved in my mind, achieving a desperate poignance: what was ‘it all’? My only conclusion was a deep feeling of compassion: ‘It’ must have hurt so badly, to break her mind. And then ‘it’ became universalised – a symbol for all of the pain we endure in our progress through the experience of being human – anything and everything. And so then ‘it’ became ‘everything’. I was quite stunned by the beauty and brilliance of this. Rockaby was also wonderful – it was a deep and fascinating contemplation of mortality.
And what can I say about the theatre craft of this production? Simply that it was so fine, it disappeared into the art. There was a coherence of artistic choices which culminated in what felt like a pure expression, a pure realisation of the writing. It felt wonderful to be shown a creation where every detail has been crafted to such a high standard with the end artistic effect in mind: pace, tone, light, staging, acting. Lisa Dwan was brilliant. The only disappointing moment was looking around me after the lights came up at the end to see that the theatre was half-empty. I felt a sharp ache that such a theatrical gem should be gleaming away for several days in the city centre, so unseen. Oh, Cambridge, I love you so much, but sometimes it worries me that you don’t go to the theatre more often. Well, perhaps when you’re ready, when the time is right, you’ll discover the cultural riches glittering in the good theatres, waiting to quietly (or outrageously) transfigure your soul.