(written while people slept and farted around me on the overnight flight from Toronto. All grammatical errors and logical mistakes in the writing have taken years to perfect)
I have never felt so tense while sitting in an auditorium waiting for the play to begin.
Two nights ago, I went to watch a superlative triple bill of Beckett plays. As I left for the theatre, my wife said, “have fun”.
“I’m not sure that’s what I’m meant to get out of it”.
As I had been warned by the actor who would perform the three pieces, fun was not necessarily what I was in for or rather I was in for “the most depressing plays the world has ever seen”.
I had read the three plays – Not I, Footfalls and Rockabye, and seen Channel 4 versions of two of them, but never been in a pitch black theatre and seen them performed in front of me.
I had wanted to see Lisa Dwan perform these pieces for a long time, but tour schedules and delayed flights had constantly interfered with those plans. Finally, I had the good fortune to be playing Toronto in one of the weeks she would be playing there too. The anticipation and previous imaginings of what it might entail did not dampen my twisted, morbid joy in finally seeing them. I usually feel nervous in the theatre when watching others, but I don’t recall having quite the same twitchy worry about what I was letting myself in for. Beckett can do that to you, I double feeling of fear, “where is he doing to take me, and will I understand?”. This was a feeling of suspense beyond being a teenager who had snuck into their first slasher movie.
I looked at the audience in the foyer, trying to work out the different reasons they might have been drawn to this. Some had the deep lines and pronounced monochrome foreheads that suggest a lifetime of existential worry and Beckett reading, others looked like they had been drawn by the effusive reviews, some looked as if they may be expecting something different, very different.
Some of them were. From the moment they were informed that there would be no light in the auditorium, not even the Exit signs, you could sense some were thinking, “what trickery is this?”
This is Beckett’s Coney Island ghost train.
I won’t go into detail on what I saw, but time moved strangely. I was in a morbid flotation tank. At times I think I was intensely listening to the dialogue, but then I wasn’t sure if I had heard anything and was just caught up in the whole experience of it. Had I missed a line, or five minutes, or nothing.
It was remarkable. There is no point in turning to your partner the moment the first glow of the houselights is visible and saying, “what do you think?”, can you really know yet?
Fortunately, I was alone, so I could just sit and worry that maybe I didn’t find it depressing enough. Was there something horribly wrong with me?
The revelation of the night was how Beckett can still disturb, annoy, confuse and bore people. I would have thought that people going to a Beckett trilogy would know they were not in for Hay Fever or Blithe Spirit, the ghosts are too real for that, and yet there were people in the audience who, from the moment it was revealed that they would be in the presence of a hyperkinetic mouth and no more for the first play, were perplexed.
Rarely have I wanted to punch people in the back of the head so much for coughing. This was not the cough of the ill, but the cough of the lazy who couldn’t be arsed to fight the tickle in their throat. The light of a watch broke the darkness, “only 15 minutes left”.
“do you have any idea what is going on?” whispered one theatregoer tetchily, ruing the lack of rollerblades or farce.
The first question of the Q & A with Lisa Dwan after the performance was lengthy and rude. Even after Beckett’s intentions were explained, that Not I was not meant to be a spoonfed narrative but a stream of consciousness that could not be understood in a simpler He Says, She Says story way when performed, he decided to repeat why he thought that was silly and how during it he kept thinking he’d rather be at the baseball. The rest of the questions were fortunately less of partially shaved squirrel monkey variety.
Fuck him, he didn’t deserve it.
This is a performance that deserves to be seen more than once. Unsurprisingly, after working on these plays for ten years, Lisa Dwan is stopping them soon. It is hard to imagine what a toll they must take. In the Q&A, she alluded to Billie Whitelaw’s four breakdowns. These plays remain viciously potent both for the performer and the audience.
I am glad Beckett still pisses people off. He has not become cosy with time. He remains demanding.
And I am glad I still don’t understand it half the time (half the time, stop showing off, I bet you’ve never understood him that much, admonished the inner monologue), but despite that I keep wanting to go back to read again and watch again and dwell in these startling, discomfiting worlds where words are few and death is on our shoulders.
Did I “have fun”? Yes, but sometimes fun is more fun when it is no fun. Why do so many people think fun should be fun?
You can here a documentary on this production HERE
Josie Long and I are back with new Shambles, our first guest is Stewart Lee HERE