Feature: Irish Stay True to Beckett at the Barbican

Photo: Hazel Coonagh.

On a brisk autumn night two years ago, I found in the corner of a Dublin city centre car park a lost statue of the Virgin Mary and a torn copy of the 1916 Proclamation of Irish Independence. You could not find more apt symbols to constitute twentieth century Ireland, no more than you can describe the desolation in seeing them lying in wreckage near a condom wrapper and a syringe. While the stage settings for Samuel Beckett’s Rough for Theatre I may simply read as “Street corner. Ruins”, Company SJ interpreted them to make something extraordinary.

Director Sarah Jane Scaife’s installation-style staging of Beckett’s sketch, in which a blind beggar and a cripple conjure an image of humanity on the brink, tours this week to the International Beckett Season at London’s Barbican.

For Scaife, who over the last 28 years has staged the playwright’s work around the world, the key to playing Beckett in different cultures is context. For example, a Mongolian production of Waiting for Godot was going nowhere until she drew on the nomadic lifestyles of the players and their intimate experiences with travelling and waiting.

Speaking of context, there’s that in which the playwright’s work emerged: the landscape blasted and left smoldering by the Second World War. Company SJ’s work in Ireland over the last few years has been to find that modern scene of devastation, and a collaboration with clown-actor Raymond Keane (Beckett liked working with clowns, especially Buster Keaton) has merited powerful results.

Watching the torn figures in Rough for Theatre, it’s impossible not to see them as homeless, and Beckett’s tragicomedy now playing out on the decimated streets of Dublin. Furthermore, an accompanying production of the mime-play Act Without Words II replaces the ‘sacks’, which the performers crawl out of, with sleeping bags.

It’s an intense vision, one that you could imagine raising flags with the Samuel Beckett Estate. When alive, the playwright was vigilant in monitoring productions of his plays, and his estate has continued that surveillance often to litigious results. In 1992 a French court held a stage director of Waiting for Godot liable because they had cast two female actors in the lead roles (Beckett previously objected to this on the basis that women don’t have prostates and therefore can’t play the bodily pains of Estragon). A U.S. production in 1998 with a racially mixed cast was also interfered with.

If imaginative artists feel straightjacketed by approaching the dramas, it’s no surprise that Beckett’s prose have become a draw for experiment over the years, with Barry McGovern’s electric adaptations of the playwright’s novels, Olwen Fouéré’s new staging of the story Lessness, and Company SJ’s haunting visitations of the short narratives: Fizzles.

Amidst the legalities surrounding the playwright, the case that gathered most attention was Deborah Warner’s staging of Footfalls with Fiona Shaw in 1994. The director’s transposition so that the daughter in the drama speaks the mother’s lines, creating the ambiguity that the parent exists only in the child’s consciousness, was a trespass for the Beckett estate, along with alterations made to the costume and set descriptions outlined in the text. Ultimately, the playwright’s representatives managed to prevent the production’s European tour.

While we are to acknowledge Beckett’s drama existing in a specific medium where form and content are intensely intertwined, inhibiting directorial freedom for the sake of ‘authorial intention’ risks abandoning the work to a specific moment in time, leaving it to be exhibited like artifacts in a museum. Furthermore, the idea that there is a singular predominant understanding of Beckett’s drama is ludicrous, considering the playwright’s own preference for abstraction and resistance to ‘explain’ the meanings in his works.

A movement away from these rigidities may be marked by recent interventions. Before undertaking her celebrated productions of Beckett’s short plays, Irish actor Lisa Dwan was granted special permission by the estate to speak both characters’ lines in Footfalls, defeating the condemnation placed on the Warner production 20 years ago.

Similarly, the departures made into the playwright’s radio drama may not have been conceivable in the recent past. When director Gavin Quinn of Irish avant garde company Pan Pan approached the bleakly comic and sometimes tender All That Fall, he must have been aware of Beckett’s objections: to stage it is “to kill it”. However, in lieu of a performed event with actors, Aedín Cosgrove and Jimmy Eadie’s impressively designed listening chamber has the audience experience the audio drama while sitting in rocking chairs, thus satisfying the playwright’s vision of a performance “for voices, not bodies”.

Perhaps this exemplifies the balance to be struck between new visions and old: to find whatever means to best release the author’s text, to continue making it live and using new ways to present it to audiences. For a group such as Company SJ, whose production draws on the context of whatever city it’s being staged in, it can project the playwright towards new possibilities. In Rough for Theatre when a blind beggar pauses to listen futilely for the treasured stains of a harp, what will he hear instead?

Rough for Theatre I and Act Without Words II, Lessness, All That Fall, and Lisa Dwan’s Not I / Footfalls / Rockaby run as part of the Barbican’s International Beckett Season (Jun 2-21). For performance times and tickets, see their website

Chris McCormack

Chris McCormack

Chris McCormack is a theatre critic based in Dublin. He blogs on MusingsInIntermissions.blogspot.ie and contributes to *Irish Theatre Magazine *and the Arts Council of Ireland. He is also a PhD fellow at the National University of Ireland Galway where he is researching influential designers who worked at the Abbey Theatre.