Unperformed

Jenny Kenyon 13 October 2007

This summer, Peter Brook and three of Complicite’s founding members have been dancing on Samuel Beckett’s grave. At the close of their hour-long Fragments, however, I’d like to think Beckett would have been dancing with them. Fragments is a quintet of the Irish dramatist’s shorter, underperformed and overlooked works. The first, Rough for Theatre I, is perhaps the most conventional – for Beckett. A blind man and a cripple converse in a dusky no-man’s-land. The blank stage, the blighted characters, the bleak humour and hopeless impotence are all so obviously reminiscent of Waiting for Godot that some could (and do) wonder why such an obviously talented company have chosen to perform the ‘fragment’ instead of the main event.

However, as the next piece is wheeled on (and they do feel something like an exhibition of curios), Fragments begins to take shape. Beckett’s works are notoriously difficult to stage, not least because the author’s estate insist on adherence to the author’s wishes down to the last stage direction. And Beckett liked his stage directions. In the third of Brook’s Fragments, the mysterious Act Without Words II, Beckett’s original instructions are for the first character, ‘A’, to be roused by a ‘goad’ which enters ‘stage right, horizontal’. Brook’s goad, however, is strictly vertical, dropping down from the heavens. A small alteration which would go unnoticed in most ‘conventional’ texts has huge repercussions in the world of Beckett-performance: The Times condemned the change as ‘too obvious, and precisely what the author wanted to avoid’.

In attempting to break away from the norm, avant-garde playwrights will (contrary to the moniker) always impose boundaries. In recording on the page what happens on stage, restrictions are inevitable. A playwright who looked up to Beckett for the duration of her career, Sarah Kane, certainly challenged those trying to perform her work: sunflowers burst up from the stage and vultures descend to tear bodies apart. Unlike the rigid clauses of Beckett’s estate, Kane’s later work challenges through its abstractions – in her final piece,4:48 Psychosis, stage directions, characters and scenes have all been removed. As with Beckett before her, Kane’s work is now infamous for its bleakness rather than its revolutionary, fragmentary approach to text and performance.

Brook’s unorthodox approach to Beckett is successful precisely because it does away with reverence and reputation. Brook reads Beckett as a hopeful and hilarious comment on life, and aside from the obscure prose piece Neither (which fails to ignite anything more than a mild confusion), the experiment pays off. Even (and perhaps especially) when Beckett’s copious notes are side-stepped, the three bring a light, beautiful touch to a playwright too frequently labelled ‘despair’. Jos Houben’s livewire rendition of the daily routine in Act Without Words II is just the right side of hysterical, and perfectly complemented by Kathryn Hunter’s restrained performance in Rockaby . The most obvious deviation from Beckett’s original is here, as Hunter speaks words which are supposed to be recorded and replayed, as in Krapp’s Last Tape. Her performance here is the highlight – restrained, moving and technically perfect – and no audience member felt the loss of Beckett’s original tape device. These are incredibly flexible performers – from folding themselves up in laundry bags, to having the courage to reassess the writings of a revered and pedantic author, their success is measured by the rapt faces and raucous laughter of the audience.

Beckett’s ‘fragments’ are not confined to writings for the stage, however. Another brave reinterpretation saw Eh Joe, a ‘piece for television’, translated to the West End stage last year (as part of the Beckett centenary) – Bad Girls the Musical it was not. Lasting all of thirty minutes, what was originally intended for a camera close-up became a dialogue between Michael Gambon – on stage, beslippered and pitiful as only Gambon can be – and a live projection of his face. By using the larger picture ignored by Beckett’s script (the bed, the chair, the sparsity of Joe’s life) as well as a really very big projection of Joe’s eye and cheek, this seemingly dead fragment found a new lease of life.

If Beckett is to maintain his rightful place in the theatre canon, performers and audiences must think as radically as he did when writing. Without questioning the text, rewriting the rules and laughing when we shouldn’t, Beckett (and all those other playwrights bound up in rules of ‘how it should be done’) truly will become unperformable. And then he really would be angry.

This summer, Peter Brook and three of Complicite’s founding members have been dancing on Samuel Beckett’s grave. At the close of their hour-long Fragments, however, I’d like to think Beckett would have been dancing with them. Fragments is a quintet of the Irish dramatist’s shorter, underperformed and overlooked works. The first, Rough for Theatre I, is perhaps the most conventional – for Beckett. A blind man and a cripple converse in a dusky no-man’s-land. The blank stage, the blighted characters, the bleak humour and hopeless impotence are all so obviously reminiscent of Waiting for Godot that some could (and do) wonder why such an obviously talented company have chosen to perform the ‘fragment’ instead of the main event.

However, as the next piece is wheeled on (and they do feel something like an exhibition of curios), Fragments begins to take shape. Beckett’s works are notoriously difficult to stage, not least because the author’s estate insist on adherence to the author’s wishes down to the last stage direction. And Beckett liked his stage directions. In the third of Brook’s Fragments, the mysterious Act Without Words II, Beckett’s original instructions are for the first character, ‘A’, to be roused by a ‘goad’ which enters ‘stage right, horizontal’. Brook’s goad, however, is strictly vertical, dropping down from the heavens. A small alteration which would go unnoticed in most ‘conventional’ texts has huge repercussions in the world of Beckett-performance: The Times condemned the change as ‘too obvious, and precisely what the author wanted to avoid’.

In attempting to break away from the norm, avant-garde playwrights will (contrary to the moniker) always impose boundaries. In recording on the page what happens on stage, restrictions are inevitable. A playwright who looked up to Beckett for the duration of her career, Sarah Kane, certainly challenged those trying to perform her work: sunflowers burst up from the stage and vultures descend to tear bodies apart. Unlike the rigid clauses of Beckett’s estate, Kane’s later work challenges through its abstractions – in her final piece,4:48 Psychosis, stage directions, characters and scenes have all been removed. As with Beckett before her, Kane’s work is now infamous for its bleakness rather than its revolutionary, fragmentary approach to text and performance.

Brook’s unorthodox approach to Beckett is successful precisely because it does away with reverence and reputation. Brook reads Beckett as a hopeful and hilarious comment on life, and aside from the obscure prose piece Neither (which fails to ignite anything more than a mild confusion), the experiment pays off. Even (and perhaps especially) when Beckett’s copious notes are side-stepped, the three bring a light, beautiful touch to a playwright too frequently labelled ‘despair’. Jos Houben’s livewire rendition of the daily routine in Act Without Words II is just the right side of hysterical, and perfectly complemented by Kathryn Hunter’s restrained performance in Rockaby . The most obvious deviation from Beckett’s original is here, as Hunter speaks words which are supposed to be recorded and replayed, as in Krapp’s Last Tape. Her performance here is the highlight – restrained, moving and technically perfect – and no audience member felt the loss of Beckett’s original tape device. These are incredibly flexible performers – from folding themselves up in laundry bags, to having the courage to reassess the writings of a revered and pedantic author, their success is measured by the rapt faces and raucous laughter of the audience.

Beckett’s ‘fragments’ are not confined to writings for the stage, however. Another brave reinterpretation saw Eh Joe, a ‘piece for television’, translated to the West End stage last year (as part of the Beckett centenary) – Bad Girls the Musical it was not. Lasting all of thirty minutes, what was originally intended for a camera close-up became a dialogue between Michael Gambon – on stage, beslippered and pitiful as only Gambon can be – and a live projection of his face. By using the larger picture ignored by Beckett’s script (the bed, the chair, the sparsity of Joe’s life) as well as a really very big projection of Joe’s eye and cheek, this seemingly dead fragment found a new lease of life.

If Beckett is to maintain his rightful place in the theatre canon, performers and audiences must think as radically as he did when writing. Without questioning the text, rewriting the rules and laughing when we shouldn’t, Beckett (and all those other playwrights bound up in rules of ‘how it should be done’) truly will become unperformable. And then he really would be angry.

Jenny Kenyon