Both Rough for Theatre I and II suffer as texts because of their resemblances to Beckett’s better work. As their titles imply, they are closer to working versions, to the scribbled exercises in ‘rough books’ that have finer and more indelible copies elsewhere, than to finished plays. It’s typical of Beckett’s working and reworking that the chronology of this logic is twisted, and that both pieces look backward rather than forward; echoes of the characters and symmetries that had animated Endgame, Waiting for Godot, and in the case of Rough for Theatre II, Krapp’s banana munching self-haunting.
Creased Productions, a young team from the University of East Anglia, have produced two fluent, smart and funny revivals that smooth out some of the wrinkles in these rarely performed odds and ends.
Rough I sees a blind beggar harangued by a wheelchair-bound gentleman in an empty world that even the sun seems to have abandoned. The beggar plucks at a fiddle, enticing the disabled man from a dark nook where he’d concealed himself. It’s practically an eye-spy of familiar Beckett themes: the master/slave dynamics of relationships, sensory symbiosis and alliances driven by base animal need.
The less enjoyable but fresher Rough II sees two clerks working through sheaves of testimonials and documents that amount to a man’s life, with the man in question poised to throw himself out of an upstage window. The clerks sift through photographs and reports, assessing the stunted terms by which the provisional suicide lived. They battle with unreliable desk-lamps and bicker like a Music Hall double act (call ’em Didi and Gogo), totally confident in the power of paperwork to square the circle of a man’s existence.
They’re curiously powerless pieces. Beckett’s favoured concepts, which in a play such as All That Fall or Endgame can pull the world out from under you like a dust sheet, here are bare and by the numbers. There’s plenty of talk of loneliness, amputation and suicide, but the strings are all to visible. At times they even approach self-parody. Their surprising success is that the political dimension of Beckett’s writing, always fierce but often muted by the weight of the existential, feels thrillingly exposed. The gulf in class between blind A and crippled B, that disguises their total need for one another. The bureaucracy inherent in society’s conception of merit, note and worth. They’re all rattling around somewhere in Godot’s depths, they’re all woven into Molloy and Embers and Happy Days, but here you don’t need a scalpel to extract them.
Creased Productions’ greatest success is in identifying the Roughs as comedies. There’s none of the portentous gloom that could make these short plays interminable, with a healthily playful presentation that stays faithful to Beckett’s intentions while acknowledging the vaudeville roots of his humour. Not all of the performances are winners, and Rough II could certainly benefit from tighter comic timing, but in general Rough Theatre offers a rare and worthy opportunity to enjoy two of Beckett’s blunter half-hours.