Not I

Beckett: Naturally absurd in London

Happy Days – Young Vic, until 08 March 2014

Not I/ Footfalls / Rockaby – Duchess Theatre, until 15 February 2014

One tends to approach a Samuel Beckett play the sane way one would a wheatgrass smoothie or a quick dip in the English Channel, knowing that whilst not necessarily being enjoyable it is definitely something that should be undertaken. Certainly from the near full houses at the Duchess Theatre and the Young Vic it would seem that Beckett’s forbidding reputation is doing little to dissuade people from going to see his plays. Perhaps watching as most of Somerset disappears under water has done wonders for people’s sense of the absurd?

Not I

Whatever the reason, London is currently home to two major Beckett revivals; the Duchess Theatre, carving itself a niche in serious drama following their decision to host the hugely successful Chichester production of Arturo Ui, has transferred Not I from the Royal Court and paired it with two other late Beckett monologues, Footfalls and Rockaby.

Not to be outdone the Young Vic has staged one of Beckett’s greatest works, Happy Days. Written in 1961 it came during a ten year stretch that also saw the production of Waiting for Godot, Endgame, Krapp’s Last Tape, as well as the novels, Malone Dies and The Unnameable. Comparatively young, at 63, compared to recent winners, the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969 must by then have been mere formality.

Watching both productions in the space of three days it is impossible not to become immersed into Beckett’s singular vision and begin to understand themes that, viewed in isolation, can seem elusive. It is common to talk about how ‘nothing happens’ in his plays but viewing the four works in close succession it is possible to see what Beckett intends through this effect.

In the trilogy at the Duchess Theatre, we see the increasing minimalism of his later work, which seeks to pare theatre back to its most fundamental elements: action, voice, reaction, and that probably reaches its apogee in Not I – a work that is part-theatre, part-performance art and part-tone poem and in which ‘nothing happens’ at a furious rate.

Happy Days, Young Vic, LondonIn Not I, the actor has become the literal mouthpiece for Beckett’s vision, in Footfalls every pace is prescribed before the actor steps onto stage and in Rockaby the actor can only react to what is offstage, they do not even control the rocking of the chair. Put together as one piece we, the audience, are left with an overwhelming sense of the lack of agency in the actor which seems to parallel the three characters inability to exert any sort of control over their environment.

It is telling that Beckett’s great collaborator, Billie Whitelaw, spoke of finding Rockaby ‘very frightening to do. And…desperately lonely to do’. In this work Beckett has recreated, without ever using the words, the universal and unyielding march of time, which must, inexorably, lead to death. The actor is alone and powerless and knowing all moments move towards the final moment when the chair will stop rocking and they won’t be called upon to join with the pre-recorded voice to plaintively cry ‘more’. With the meticulously written script prescribing each action of the actor there is very little for the actor to do and it is hard not to imagine, as the performance continues, an unseen struggle within the actor about mortality, a rising panic, and a desperation to share with the character the crying of ‘more’.

<<Continue to full review of Happy Days and Not I / Footfalls / Rockaby>>

The Rehabilitation of Bertolt Brecht

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui –Duchess Theatre, booking until 07 Dec 2013

Leaving aside Shakespeare, Chekhov and Ibsen, the popularity of playwrights tends to wax and wane on the London stage; the recent reappraisal of Rattigan as someone unfairly cast aside by the Angry Young Men of the 1950s and the continuing absence of Bernard Shaw are two of the more obvious examples of the way a writer’s fortune remains tied to the whims of producers.

Arturo Ui Poster

The UK has also notably never quite embraced the rich vein of talent that exists in European theatre: Racine is rarely seen; Moliere, a mainly absent figure; and modern continental playwrights virtually non-existent. The thrall of Anglo-American naturalism and the rawness of the grand narratives of O’Neill, Williams and Miller continues to be preferred to the rather more metaphysical questions posed by the likes of Ionesco and Artaud.

Within this structure Brecht cuts a solitary figure, and has increasingly become something of the forgotten man of British theatre. Whilst his position, alongside Stanislavski, as one the pre-eminent figures in the development of modern theatrical practice is assured, it was Stanislavskian concepts that became the dominant mode of theatre and film; championed by Stella Adler and embodied in the work of a young Marlon Brando.

In comparison Brecht’s influence has seemingly ebbed away to the point where a new production of a Brecht play in the West End is something of an event. One must acknowledge that there are resource considerations to this; large casts can be ruinously expensive but that reality is built on the premise that Brecht is deeply unfashionable and cannot be considered an audience draw.

The irony’s that Brecht is perhaps the most American-looking of all the European playwrights. Stanislavski had little desire to cast his eyes across the Atlantic but to Brecht the new world and its eager embrace of democratic and technological progress chime with ideas that were central to his own theatrical philosophy.

arturo_ui_063_Henry_Goodman__Arturo_Ui__and_Michael_Feast__Roma_._The_Resistible_Rise_of_Arturo_Ui._Photo_by_Manuel_Harlan._4ffd4cb1ddfbbAt its heart was the development of an art form that would become pre-eminent for the first five decades of the 20th century: cinema. Silent cinema was the great leveller; reliant on music, gesture and simplified dialogue so it could appeal across the immigrant communities of America, these early pictures represented Brechtian techniques transposed to a medium that could truly be embraced by a mass audience.

It was within the world of cinema that Brecht found a way of telling the story of Hitler. The development of genre pictures – particularly the early gangster movies, starring the likes of James Cagney and George Raft – gave Brecht a mechanism with which the rise of an international dictator could be challenged in a way that did not need threaten the authorities directly and would also appeal to a mass audience.

This is not to say that Arturo Ui is dumbed down; the reverse is in effect true, Brecht is raising the genre picture above its humble origins. He may have gained a reputation as a didactic playwright with a sledgehammer touch but this is to ignore the craft taken over the formal structure of the play and the sly literary references liberally sprinkled throughout the text.

Arturo Ui could be enjoyed for the wonderful pastiche of Mark Antony’s oration at Caesar’s funeral and the knowing nods to pretty much every tragedy in the Shakespearian canon but it does more than this – it recognises the freedom of the theatre, in opposition to the limitations of cinema, to challenge the audience by upturning the established conventions of an entire genre.

<<Continue to full review>>