Jermyn Street Theatre, London – until 8 February 2020
A man sitting behind a table, a man sitting on the edge of an unmade bed, two men sitting on a park bench. These are the settings in the Samuel Beckett Triple Bill currently at the tiny Jermyn Street Theatre and directed by theatre legend Trevor Nunn. While these locations are utterly faithful to the script instructions given by the writer, this particular combination of sedentary pieces makes for a fairly soporific and enervating evening.
Of course, the Beckett estate has always guarded the writer’s legacy with an iron determination that everything should be entirely as proscribed. In the 1990s a Deborah Warner/Fiona Shaw production of Footfalls found itself in court when the actress took more steps than the script allowed. Effectively Nunn and co’s hands are tied. So perhaps the problem lies with the decision to programme these pieces together. That said, on another level there is a coherence about the choices that makes entire sense when viewed as variations on the themes of aging, loss and memory. All three pieces feature elderly men looking back over their lives, haunted by the sounds of the past and filled with regret and, in each individual case, the actors do an extremely good job.
First up is the most well-known piece, Krapp’s Last Tape. The aging protagonist prepares to set down another part of his remembrances in the form of an audio memoir but first he replays extracts from a tape made thirty years previously – part of this recording is the central character reflecting on an even earlier recording he has just relistened to. As usual with Beckett there are more questions than answers. For whose benefit is the recording being made? Is the taping an annual/regular event (the spools – how he loves that word – he has amassed seem to suggest so)?
At each recording is it part of the ritual to listen to an earlier one? Is this really his last attempt at a recording; if so, what is then to become of him? James Hayes as Krapp handles these existential dilemmas very well and, especially when for long stretches he is listening to his younger self, adeptly exhibits the sort of annoyance and even disgust that anyone might register when confronted with their own earlier inadequacies. However, I did not really feel fully engaged with what was going on and by the first interval I felt twinges of concern that the whole evening was going to leave me cold. I should say, I had rather expected this piece to headline the evening, but I guess it only goes to show that with Beckett one should expect the unexpected.
The second piece, Eh Joe was originally conceived for television. It also features a disembodied voice from the past, in this case that of Beckett regular Lisa Dwan. Her voice is beautifully cadenced and towards the end of the piece became as gravelly as the beach she was describing; it was almost suggestive of evil. I could have listened to her for longer and there, really, is the point. I was more interested in what she had to say than what was unfolding visually which was…precisely nothing. The Voice variously reminds, sub textually comments on, horrifies and castigates the immobile Joe, who is, to be fair, played with heart rending precision by Niall Buggy. As indicated, he has no words and, once the voice in his head begins, he has to remain stock still. Any emotion is conveyed through his face alone and it is a huge test of Buggy’s concentration that he is able to do so without breaking character. If that wasn’t enough a video camera, slowly moving into ever nearer close up, projects a live image behind him. From my particular seat I found the image somewhat unclear. And so, after a while I closed my eyes and concentrated on Dwan’s mesmeric delivery. It is perhaps ironic – though entirely in keeping with Beckett’s world – that probably the performance of the evening was given by someone not even present.
Buggy returns in the last piece The Old Song along with David Threlfall. Playing long time acquaintances Gorman and Cream they reminisce about their pasts and voice their concerns about their respective presents. They are in effect as much voices from each other’s pasts as Krapp’s younger self and Joe’s Voice. Both Buggy and Threlfall handle the dialogue extremely well. The two characters are, seemingly, subject to memory lapses and their constant minor bickering about how, where and when things occurred provides some much-needed conflict. The piece is eerily reminiscent of the repartee of Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting For Godot. However, ultimately it is probably one for Beckett scholars and completists.
It is easy to see why Trevor Nunn brought these pieces together. He has reached a time in his own life when age and the past are probably of huge significance to him. He certainly has a wealth of his own theatrical memories to draw on – not least composing the lyric for the most well-known song from a certain feline oriented musical. The chance, also, to see some theatrical legends at close quarters will also be an undoubted draw – I believe the run has all but sold out already. However, I am afraid I found the evening ultimately disappointing. It was all a bit too minimalist, a bit too samey, a bit too soporific. While it is true that often less is more this can, as here, be taken too far. The critic Vivian Mercier famously described Godot as a two-act play where “nothing happens … twice”; this production is an evening where nothing happens…repeatedly.