It’s always pleasing to watch a master of any kind at work. Someone so truly, properly, confidently in control of what they are doing that the crafting of it seems almost effortless. So it is with Conor Lovett, holding us in the palm of his hand within the first minutes of Gare St Lazare’s First Love.
Beckett on a Friday night is a challenge, almost a gauntlet thrown down, particularly in a prose piece with a single performer. The wandering Escher staircases of his asides within asides within asides seem almost intent on losing you, but Lovett holds the reins so calmly and every twist and twitch of Judy Hegarty Lovett’s direction is so precise that we hold course. Lovett plays the audience, gently, like a well-loved instrument – acknowledging every cough, dropped paper and unattended mobile phone; a wry gratefulness that we are here at all. It is not hard to wonder whether it truly takes an Irish company to capture Beckett’s bleak humour, as two benches flank Lovett throughout the course of the piece, while he instead mimes one every single time it is described.
It is on this bench, this bench only in mime, in mind, that Lovett’s character begins a deeply self loathing relationship with a woman he meets there. Clinically detached but fascinated, he observes his own experience of love from the exterior; deeply disturbed by almost every aspect of it, not least that of the woman. The female body. The sexual agency which terrifies and affronts him.
We are often aware of the writer’s presence in the classics; particularly if we are so obviously familiar with the words, the twists and turns, even a particular style. But Beckett is so unavoidably indivorcibly on this stage that it’s impossible to ignore; regardless of the skilled hands that hold it, the text is boldly, brazenly in charge and Lovett is its mouthpiece.
Naturally it is not without his classic gallows humour, and Lovett wrangles every drop of this from a more than willing audience; why carve your declaration of love into a tree when you can write it in a cow pat? So determined is he to subvert and deconstruct any nature of romance or unconsidered affection that it feels almost too constructed to encompass the thrilling terror that is falling in love for the first time, but in the care of Gare St Lazare it makes for a considered, unsettling ramble.