Why adapt Samuel Beckett’s novella, a sliver of cynical love written in 1946 and published in 1970, for the stage? At the best of times, we can find within the banality of the writer’s work the otherwise affecting meaningless of our existence. But that’s not to say that all of it makes an easy transition from book to stage. The danger, in fact, is that on a broader canvass the finer details disappear.
First Love is as Beckettian a love story as you’d expect: filthy, inconvenient and framed by the agonising routines of life. A man is made homeless after his father’s death and begrudgingly finds companionship with a woman he meets on a park bench.
This Gate Theatre adaptation, finally making its Irish premiere after debuting in 2007, could instantly be mistaken for a lost play by the author. The lights go up on an ashen wasteland like a scene from Waiting for Godot or Happy Days – bare except for a bench and a ragged tramp.
The sole figure is played by the magnetic Barry McGovern, a long-time Beckett actor. His mildly agitated narrator is recognisably from Dublin and armed with a subtly dry delivery. “The mistake one makes is to speak to people,” he explains to the crowd, who laugh up their loveable curmudgeon. With the ease with which he takes to the language, you’d think McGovern would need little direction – yet it is exactly this the production is lacking.
Beckett’s plays may be accused of being uneventful, but that’s not to say nothing happens in them. Cycles of conflict and reconciliation often set the tragicomedies on course towards some cruel epiphany about the world. It’s a missed opportunity, then, that director Michael Colgan doesn’t suss out Beckett’s novella for interesting comparable tensions. The speaker’s problems with love, and all the things that come with it, never quite haunt in the same way that the ghostly house that fades in and out of Eileen Diss’s set design does.
By choosing to play it straight, Colgan’s staging runs into problematic territory. When the narrator spews out stunning contempt for his silent female companion, the delivery carries something of the crudeness of stand-up comedy. Had the production instead adopted the kind of absurdist tone found throughout Beckett’s drama, this would have questioned those degradations rather than reinforced them.
By the end of the play, no cruel trick has actually been played. Indeed, McGovern’s tramp is pleasant enough but without any heat or conclusion he fades away just like his first love. Unremarkable and all but forgotten.