A beach. A skull. A voice. Pan Pan Theatre’s take on Samuel Beckett’s 1959 radio play Embers is no easy experience. The piece focuses on Henry (Andrew Bennett) as he sits on the beach looking out to the waves and remembering his past. He calls up memories and hails ghostly figures of those he once loved, the most tangible being Ada (Aine Ni Mhuiri). Like the sea he observes from the beach, the memories come and go, some crash against him like the surf reaching his feet, whilst others, such as the voice of Ada, are calmer currents that gently shift him from the beach like the wearing away of the stones over hundreds of years to grains of sand.
In a curious twist to Embers it feels as if Beckett’s words, which boom around the Kings Theatre as part of the Edinburgh International Festival, come second to the design. Andrew Clancy’s skull sculpture fills a large portion of the stage, the cast stand within and eerily look out. Then there’s a series of hanging sculptures that look like speakers, which stretch across the whole performance space, their metallic surfaces shine and reflect like a sensory experience. This is all beautifully lit by Aedin Cosgrove, whose lighting design floods the stage with waves of colours. The lights roll across the space like the sea we hear throughout Embers, offering a truly breathtaking visual experience. It’s not often a lighting design can render you speechless, but Cosgrove’s design is the real treat in this absurd piece.
For the rest of the work, it’s hard to know where to start. Bennett’s Henry has a weathered edge to his voice, whilst Mhuiri as his deceased wife Ada is a calming influence to the stage. Beyond this there is little enjoyment to take from Embers. Gavin Quinn’s direction is minimal, and the focus upon the aural experience makes the transition from radio play to the stage a difficult one. Yes there’s theatricality in the stage design and the skull that looms in the performance space (like death constantly haunting us) but aside from a chilling voiceover, there feels like there is something missing from the direction. The humanity within Henry’s and Ada’s exchange, for me at least, could warrant a physical presence, instead we’re offered almost an installation piece. The design is fascinating, and at times we’re caught off guard by the booming voices that haunt the work, there’s not enough to keep our attention. Visually, Embers is a treat. Theatrically it lacks finesse.
Embers played as part of the Edinburgh International Festival.