I’m outside the Barbican, across from the lake terrace, seated on a cardboard mat in the lee of the St Giles Ward of Cripplegate Without. Two decrepit old men in grubby tracksuits with blackened teeth argue about day and night, corned beef, and unhappiness. These are 21st century tramps, the kind you see on any street corner in London, but in their mundanity lies their humanity, one which expresses itself as an indomitable capacity for hope, companionship, and shelter.
This is Rough for Theatre I, the first of two short pieces presented by Irish collective Company SJ as part of the Barbican’s International Beckett Season, which also sees the return of the Royal Court productions of Not I, Footfalls, and Rockabystarring Lisa Dwan. The second is Act Without Words II, a mime piece for two players in which its mute clowns raise the inauthentic modes of their daily routine to the level of ritual, only to be dashed by the unerring persistence of a fate personified in the long metal rod that goads them from their sleeping bags to rise, brood, pray, dress, brood, eat, and pray.
The two plays are perfect companion pieces. Though each has its own counterpart in Beckett’s canon (the corresponding Rough for Theatre II and Act Without Words I), both trace a similar interdependence, mutual and futile in essence, between their two characters. In Rough for Theatre I, A is blind, crying in vain for ‘a penny for a poor old man’ between bursts of jarring scrapes on his fiddle; B is a one-legged cripple, unable to leave his chair or travel in any vector but ‘the straight line’. In Act Without Words II, A and B share the same wardrobe, the same ubiquitous Beckettian carrot, and rely wholly on each other’s invisible efforts to travel incrementally across the stage which is their world. In pairing the two pieces, director Sarah Jane Scaife superimposes the world of Rough for Theatre I, with its two tramps ‘crouched in the dark’ at a street corner, onto the world of Act Without Words II, so that the other-worldly clowns of the second piece become mute duplicates of those in the first, the logical conclusion of their homelessness finding its cause in the Beckettian motto inscribed on the stage flat in Act Without Words II – ‘the only sin is the sin of being born.’
Yet in bringing Beckett into the 21st century, Scaife seems to have overlooked some crucial elements in the originals. Beckett’s stage directions are nothing if not meticulous, but they too are part of universal ‘shape and form of the play’ that Scaife is seeking to uphold. In Rough for Theatre I, Raymond Keane’s A oscillates convincingly between the demure and the threatening, but has no real need for B, since he can already turn his wheelchair about in pirouettes even without the aid of his stick. In Act Without Words II, Keane’s A is shaky, drunk, drugged rather than ‘slow, awkward, absent’. Only Bryan Burroughs as B in Act Without Words II, with his frenetic, jerky movements, succeeds in fulfilling his role as ‘brisk, rapid, precise’, giving us an OCD clown for the 21st century.
The decision to stage the pieces outside stems from the same seed which inspired Scaife during her production of Fizzles, an adaptation of eight short prose pieces by Beckett, which premièred at the Tiger Dublin Fringe Festival last year. These pieces are part of the same ongoing project, entitled ‘Beckett in The City’, which aims to put ‘flesh on the scar that Beckett reveals within our society’. Yet, while Scaife has previously reimagined Beckett’s characters in a ‘bus station in Kuala Lumpur, on the snow covered steppes of Mongolia, and in the heat and dust of rural India’, I’m conscious of the fact that the well-kept terraces of the Barbican complex present just as controlled an environment as the theatres within the building. This is a world in which actors exploring the vicissitudes of the homeless may be invited into for the ‘entertainment’ of the theatre-going middle-class, only for the latter to go away, still oblivious to the fact that ‘the same image is being repeated all over the city, but this time in reality.’