The plot of Samuel Beckett’s 1946 novella, First Love, is so very plausible that, if given only the synopsis, you’d be forgiven for thinking the work had been misattributed. The story, in a nutshell, goes as follows: an anchor-less man recalls his expulsion from his lodgings after his father’s death, the event which coincides with his premier and only experience of love – a discomforting entanglement from which he soon distances himself. I’d always assumed First Love was unstageable, not because of the usual Beckettian bizarreness, but rather out of a distinct lack of necessity for a theatrical staging. The desolating starkness that radiates from it, the sense of uninhabitable emptiness occupied by an hollow man, with his voice that comes at you like something from out of the darkness, seems to calls for no other interpretation but your own. It’s just as well then that acclaimed director Michael Colgan, in all his great wisdom, allows the strange and haunting story to speak for itself. In this simple yet surprisingly touching adaption, Peter Egan plays the nameless narrator, a mud-spattered wanderer who moves with kind of subdued stillness often seen in solitary animals, only ruffled by the intrusion of others. In a production so minimal (the kind of conscious economising that somehow manages to remind you how much money must’ve gone into it), where Eileen Diss’s sparse, perfectly pared-back set only just hints at a place someone might call home – a doorframe and a window glowing faintly, almost intangibly in the gloom – it falls to Egan to justify First Love‘s transfer from page to stage.
Fortunately, there are no frills or flourishes here, only the velvety resonance of Egan’s voice lulling us into a sort of dream-state. A man who spends his life kipping in graveyards and on public benches is a man ever on the periphery of society, and so we too lose sight of our usual sense of ‘reality’ if we allow ourselves to fall into the world of his words. Ultimately, then, it becomes hard to balance our response to the figure before us and the story he is telling, because there is a real tension between his quite familiarly down-and-out appearance and his surrealist, darkly comic monologue that hovers somewhere between wild raving and cold rationality. Colgan and Egan inflict a determined kind of naturalism onto the story, and so there is none of the emotional colourlessness or studied detachment that we might expect from a Beckett adaptation. Of course, this induces great laughs. The sexual relations between the narrator and his one-time love Lulu are particularly wryly rendered, but perhaps any audience response to this work depends on their level of tolerance for a very specific, and for some no doubt refreshing, perspective on the tale.
The faultless Peter Egan injects more vulnerability into the resolutely antagonistic narrator than I expected, a touch more recognisable humanity than perhaps might be found in the text upon first reading, but this ache of loneliness that insinuates itself into his dryly charismatic delivery functions as a rather unexpected, and therefore very affecting, tug at our heartstrings. Of course, heart-wrenching isn’t quite the same as desolating, and I’d argue that by making the narrator more accessible, the tale itself is pushed further into inconceivability; we see a familiar figure spouting unfamiliar things, making it too easy to dismiss it as a portrait of an individual gone astray, rather than a wider reflection on the human hunger for, and terror of, love. Perhaps, for me, Colgan’s First Love lacks that overwhelming and distinctly Beckettian feeling of familiar strangeness. Because there is no divide, no-one reaches across that divide to touch us.
First Love played as part of the Edinburgh International Festival.