Lasting 30 minutes and with not a single word uttered from leading man Michael Gambon, you’d think that you were being taken for a ride with Samuel Beckett’s Eh Joe as part of the Edinburgh International Festival. The first of Beckett’s writing for television, Joe, an old shuffling man checks the windows and doors, making sure there are no intruders before he falls asleep on his bed. Abruptly he wakes, sits upright and a woman’s voice booms from the darkness of the space. The voice (Penelope Wilton) torments him for all the actions of his past and the various lovers he has discarded. Gambon, as Joe, reacts silently, but with a camera fixed on his face and a projection filling half the stage on a gauze, every passing thought is magnified as it flickers across his face.
Eh Joe might be one of the shortest shows presented as part of the Edinburgh International Festival, but it certainly doesn’t hold back with a richness and depth required from Gambon. Every thought and emotion is showed in silence. Gambon’s eyes dart about the space, then he is still, his lip quivers and his hands fidget in his lap. A single tear swells in his eye and rolls down his cheek as his mouth begins to form the shape of a word before it is lost into the silence. Gambon’s sense of internal emotion that presents itself across his face in Eh Joe is breathtaking. In the space of 30 minutes he expresses sadness, terror, anger and so much more, all from the contours of his face and the curling of his lips.
The use of the projection in Atom Egoyan’s direction makes the transition from television play to theatrical experience easy. We can imagine the camera panning onto Joe as he sits on his bed and listens to the voice. Wilton’s voiceover is sharp and precise, there’s a slight hiss in the venom of the words she delivers and a mocking laugh that rises at the end of sentences. It’s an unlikely theatrical joy that demands a leading actor such as Gambon to take the reins in delivering a silent but forceful performance.
Eh Joe is playing at the Edinburgh International Festival until 31 August. For more information and tickets, see the Edinburgh International Festival website.