The former home of Ireland’s National Ballroom is perhaps not the most obvious choice for a production of Samuel Beckett’s work, but with its faded grandeur No. 20 Parnell Square in Dublin’s north inner city provides a suitably haunted house for Company SJ’s Beckett in the City: The Women Speak, a staging of four short plays thematically linked through female liminality.
Director Sarah Jane Scaife makes some wonderfully innovative use of this near-derelict building, siting performances in a series of atmospheric rooms and utilising the space in between to explore the suffering of Beckett’s women. A key aspect of the dramaturgy of the Beckett in the City series – the company has staged similar site-specific productions of Rough for Theatre I, Act Without Words II, and Fizzles – is the use of projected film footage to make performance sites of non-traditional space. Here, as the audience ascends a creaking staircase we walk in the wake of an old woman who seems to turn to observe her ghost.
Projected text on the set of Rockaby, however, seems more of a visual gimmick, adding no substance to the performance. The power of each piece relies much on John Comiskey’s lighting design in bearing out the Gothic tones of Beckett’s late work, most especially the exquisite visual construction of Footfalls which presents us with a Miss Havisham-like figure lamenting a life not lived. A disappointing aspect of the production is the monologue in Not I.
Writing to counsel Jessica Tandy as she prepared for the daunting role of Mouth in 1973, Beckett emphasised that the play must ‘work on the nerves of the audience, not its intellect’ – ‘no colour’ he stressed. In this production the monologue is too interested in accentuation and timbre to fully unnerve us and would benefit from a faster delivery. An interesting addition, however, to the performance history of this key play is the treatment of Auditor, a figure Beckett commonly omitted when directing the piece. Picking up on the Irish origins of Not I (Beckett pointed to itinerant women he encountered in his youth as a source), Auditor here is a hag-like figure who solemnly studies Mouth, silently and poignantly registering the anguish she witnesses and would seem to share. Joan Davis also provides the haunted W in Rockaby, her ash-like and pinched demeanour combining with the mesmeric fragility of the recorded monologue in a moving portrait of old age. All three actors, Michèle Forbes, Joan Davis and Bríd Ní Neachtain, execute Come and Go with studied grace yet it is here that the venue served the production least well, the emphatic interiority of the space robbing the piece of some of its spectrality.
The closing moment of this play with all three women holding hands is a fitting image of solidarity with which to conclude this meditation on women in Beckett’s drama. Although the entreatment to consider Beckett’s representations of women in relation to a specifically Irish history of marginalisation (which is certainly available in these pieces) is unconvincing, The Women Speak movingly reminds us of the humanising power of Beckett’s work.