Act Without Words I is one of those plays that formed part of my dramatic education long before I saw it. It stood apart from the Beckett that I read fervently aged 16, and was actually diminished in my own mind by the quite straight and perambulatory version found in the 2005 Beckett on Film collection. A man thrown onto a desert-stage is tormented with whistles by an unseen force, dangled water just out of reach, given help that hinders, and is exasperated to the point of attempting suicide. Whispering Beasts’ production of the 1957 piece, the first of three of Beckett’s short pieces at the Old Red Lion Theatre, not only justifies my 16 year-old fascination with it, but also blows the easy interpretations out of the water.
First off, the most obvious thing is that you can’t do Act Without Words I in a black box studio. Impossible. Nope. Need to fly things in and out. Need a hydraulic tree and an endless supply of fingernails. But of late, The Old Red Lion and its visiting companies have tended to do a big old Jabba laugh at what pub theatres are normally used for and do whatever the hell they please. In this case the three cast members who aren’t performing the role of ‘the man’ wear black robes and operate rope pulleys flying boxes and bottles in and out in full view of the audience. Now maybe someone else will read the three-in-black in a trinitarian fashion, or see the Fates, or something equally epic, but I found the onstage presence intriguingly diffused the top-down, cruel-god-poor-bloke reading of Act Without Words I and pushes all of the emphasis onto the man and his response to the world he is presented with. The wilting of his trusty tree’s branch just at the moment he’s decided to hang himself is all very Jonah/Job/Judas/Jesus, but it felt like this performance was as open and suggestive as the text, not holding a secret, but being fully comprised of its sequence of moves, its potential for psychology without prescription. ‘Reflection’ is Beckett’s word for it in the text. He reflects, after every external action declares itself against him.
Secondly, the music by Greg Harradine pulses along like a police drama chase scene at a pace which we and the performers can barely keep up with. That reflection? Meaning’s for suckers. Don’t hang about. Get to the end of the moves. It’s like the soundtrack to the 2001 Bungie game Oni (Cracking game, not especially Beckettian). My companion at the theatre thought the whole piece had a platforming point-and-click gaming edge to it, a reading which is certainly supported by the music, but didn’t occur to me. I was distracted.
Distracted because, thirdly, the man is played by Joe Eyre. And he is just great. He dances it. He dances falling over, and dances falling down, he dances frustration and dances ‘clever girl’ with his eyes.
Fourthly, it’s so funny. It’s laugh out loud funny. And it shouldn’t be. It’s the rankest schadenfreude, but its humour makes this terrifying vision of life so enriching.
Oh my gosh there are two other shorts for me to review. And they were also brilliant. But I was possibly still in the refractory period after Act Without Words I, so do excuse me if I’m a little more level-headed.
Rough for Theatre II sees Bryan Moriarty and Eyre take the role of two… advocates? angels? who meet in the middle of the night to decide whether to let a man jump from his window to his death. Are they corporeal? Are they psychological? Of the three pieces it’s the longest, and the one which most feels like it’s got a secret at its core. The other two aren’t solvable, their abstraction defines them, but Rough for Theatre II feels like you’re doing as much detective work as A & B (as they are called in the text) are in trying to assess their charge’s character and situation. It’s a great production of a colder and more elusive work. You could say of any of these pieces that you don’t ‘get’ them, but only this second feels like it’s smiling coyly at your interpretation.
Finally, Catastrophe is the later (1982) and most transparently political of the plays, but again, its meaning is deliberately unfixed. It is political in its dramatic action rather than its referent. It concerns three bodies – a silent posed figure on a box on stage (played generously by Dominic Grove, who also plays the silent man frozen and silhouetted at his window in Rough for Theatre II). He is adjusted by a female assistant (a brilliant, big and fun performance from Kate Kennedy) according to the fastidious demands of the director (played with pursed-lipped evil by Moriarty). Finally we are treated to ‘the performance’ – lights up on the figure as we hear clapping and whooping, and watch as the posed figure finally rebels, by staring us in the face. End of play. It’s haunting. Shiver-inducing. It made me think of the image of the torture of Ali Shallal al-Qaisi at Abu Ghraib, of the questions of representation thrown up by Exhibit B last year. It shows up the pathetic monstrosity of middle men and order-followers, and it advocates for the untold power of even the smallest resistance.
I think Sara Joyce and her cast absolutely nail Act Without Words I and Catastrophe, and in both they’ve made leaps with the piece – in Act Without Words I the demands of the space and the tempo hem them in and the resulting dance is gasp fast and slick. In Catastrophe Kennedy draws out the ugly humour of the piece by going big with the assistant and doing some definite interpreting of her stage directions. Beckett once wrote to a director who wanted some flexibility in his staging: “Keep it cool.” Whispering Beasts definitely keep it cool. In Rough for Theatre II perhaps they didn’t discover the same points of difficulty or opportunity that would open up this more difficult piece fully, but it’s such a quibble. The whole event wraps up into a stunning hour of theatre. You’ve got another week to see it. Got to go now, I’ve got a date with Beckett’s Complete Dramatic Works.