Beckett in the City
From Brecht’s plan to project films of Marxist revolutions behind Didi and Gogo in Waiting for Godot to JoAnne Akalaitis’s explicitly postnuclear Endgame, firebrand directors have never stopped trying to amp up the social and political relevance of Samuel Beckett. George Tabori’s Happy Days in which Winnie was a paraplegic confined to a bed rather than buried in a mound was in my view the nadir of such disastrous experiments, reducing one of drama’s most monumentally reverberant images to a puny polemic. Devotees of explicitation have far more often embarrassed themselves than illuminated the plays. Questions of textual fidelity aside, the suppressed power of Beckett’s emptied-out, introspective, profoundly ambiguous environments invariably ends up seeping through any imposed topicality like a prodding conscience.
For this reason the preshow spin of Beckett in the City: The Women Speak had me worried. This site-specific staging of Beckett’s short, later works for women—Not I, Footfalls, Rockaby and Come and Go (originally produced in Dublin)—is presented by the Irish Arts Center in three dingy rooms in a former piano factory on West 52nd Street. A program note and pre-curtain announcement by the director Sarah Jane Scaife invite us to draw parallels between poor immigrant women who might have worked in such factories long ago and the ghostly, fragmented characters in the plays. This is not an obvious analogy, to me at any rate.
It turns out, however, that Beckett in the City: The Women Speak is a canny, subtle and startlingly beautiful event, rooted in uncommon sensitivity to the enduringly odd content of these plays. The evening has many moving parts—the plays, the multi-part site, texts and videos projected on the walls that both set the mood and offer critical foils—and all of it contributes to one of the most intelligent and resonant feminist readings of Beckett I’ve seen.
The audience—only 38 people are allowed in—is first ushered into a small, darkened room where a full-wall video shows three women in clogs, plain skirts, and sweaters shuffling aimlessly about a dreary and dilapidated space, peering out high windows, never engaging one another. Between the plays, other videos (all credited to Kilian Waters) will show these same women drifting up and down seedy stairs, moving listlessly in and out of doorways—very much like depressed patients in a mental institution except that their movements are eerily smooth, phantasmal, and graceful. They are marginal and discarded females, we understand, but not valueless. That note lingers as the crowd is led to a still smaller room for Not I.
Not I is the most notorious of Beckett’s late “dramaticules,” a disjointed, torrential monologue for a disembodied mouth surrounded by darkness, tightly masked to isolate that part from the rest of the performer as she talks about a woman suddenly gushing speech after 70 years of silence. Many know this work from the 1977 TV version starring Billie Whitelaw, an unforgettable 12-minute closeup. In most productions done in conventional theaters, however, Mouth is so infinitesimal to most spectators that the obscene spectacle of its manic pulsation has to be taken on faith. It might as well be a faintly flickering star.
The first distinction of Scaife’s Not I, then, is that no spectator is more than 15 feet from its powerful lead actress, Bríd Ní Neachtain. Ní Neachtain sits in the dark atop a 5-foot stool, unrestrained by any head-clamping apparatus (such devices resembling medieval torture contraptions are often used for this role). The tight spotlight on her mouth spills a bit onto her chin and neck but any distraction from that soon gives way to utter absorption in the nuances of her flapping, swelling and shrinking mouth movements. The mouth is fascinating in itself, alternately abstract and suggestive of some toothy, sentient sea creature escaped from the water and suspended in midair.
Ní Neachtain’s performance is also distinguished by its pacing. She doesn’t speak at the breakneck speed actors usually adopt in this role but rather at a sober conversational clip, as if struggling to articulate a particular thought. Her pace gradually quickens, presumably as the lucidity of that thought eludes her. The implication is that Mouth, here, is not just the childlike, impulsive head-case she’s often taken to be. She’s rather a whole, adult woman striving to communicate through obscure impediments that, for reasons unknown, take the form of metaphorical fragmentariness.
The staging is also unique in that this striving is witnessed by another woman. Not I’s second character, a sexless, hooded figure called Auditor who is often cut, is here played by the recognizably female Joan Davis, who stands bareheaded about 4 feet from Ní Neachtain, tenderly raising her arms each time Mouth denies the first person (“what? . . who? . . no! . . she!”) and earnestly peering at her as if searching for her eyes. This Auditor might be a passerby, a friend, a good Samaritan, or a reflected self. In any case, she is an Other who cares, an engagement that transforms the hermetic spectacle into an enigmatic social encounter.
The stagings of the other plays all have rich twists like this as well. In Footfalls, for instance, a play for a woman pacing back and forth in a strip of light speaking with the offstage voice of her indigent mother, the actress Michèle Forbes provides both voices. She has recorded the mother’s lines. As we realize that these two characters are now one, the disturbing dilemma of the protagonist, May, who feels insufficiently present in the world and tries to reassure herself with the sound of her own footsteps, is sharpened. She copes not just by compulsively pacing but also by compulsively inventing imaginary Others.
This idea is admittedly present in the original script. May tells a story about a woman named Amy who, like her, is lonely, paces, and is only sporadically material, inflecting it with writerly phrases like “as the reader will remember.” Forbes adds other creative strategies, such as a slow choreography of ethereal hand and arm gestures that clasp her head, block her face, and wrap her torso. These are like dance movements of the mind that feel privately sensuous, meant for her alone, and they are exquisitely framed in the dim glow of several large, upstage frosted windows.
A single frosted window beside a rocking chair comprises the setting for Rockaby, Beckett’s gorgeous play about an isolated old woman listening to her own voice speaking in lullaby cadence while being rocked to apparent death by a mysterious offstage force. Joan Davis performs this work with ferocious intensity in extremely dim light, costumed in a plain black, wholly unreflective dress rather than the glittery sequined outfit Beckett called for. As with Not I, the stress is placed on the character’s human reality, subtly shifting the emphasis to place her equally in the world and in the play’s weird, synthetic, pathetic twilight.
Scaife has been careful to remain scrupulously faithful to the broad ambiguity of Beckett’s social environments. Nevertheless, she is also clearly determined to confront us with specific worldly matters such as the burdens that gender and sex stereotypes hang on women, and their historical warehousing, sidelining and dismissal. Between Footfalls and Rockaby, the milling audience is shown a projected text from the Irish Constitution venerating the traditional family and discouraging women from working outside the home.
One of the more interesting interpretive choices of the evening has to do with female agency. It occurs in the final work, Come and Go, and involves a small change in stage directions. This play for three women whose bodies are hidden inside “dull” full-length coats, their eyes obscured by “drab nondescript hats,” centers on three old school friends and their moments of whispered gossip. As each of the three characters exits in turn, the other two share a shocking confidence about her, possibly concerning serious illness. “Does she not realize?” “Has she not been told?” “Does she not know?”
The adjustment Scaife made was to have each woman re-enter one line earlier than Beckett specified, so that she overhears one of the reaction lines, “God grant not,” “God forbid” or “Please God not.” In other words, each character knows she’s just been discussed and decides to ignore it. She may intuit what they’ve said about her too. The effect of this is to downplay the impression of these women as dupes or unwitting victims of socio-cosmic cruelty and to suggest instead a common, conscious choice among them for friendship and connection, despite the disappointments that go along with that.
It’s extraordinarily difficult to let the air of the outer world into Beckett’s cloistered late dramas without distorting them or depleting their mysterious energies. Sarah Jane Scaife and these three phenomenal actresses, improbably, have found a way of doing so, and their work deserves a far larger audience than it will likely reach in this sold-out New York run.
Photos: Amanda Gentile/ADG Photography