Saturday, August 10, 2013

Pan Pan, 'Embers': The Old Man and the Sea

Photo: Ros Kavanagh
Samuel Beckett Theatre
Aug 8-17

My review of Embers by Samuel Beckett coming up just as soon as I carry a gramophone about with me ...

"We never found your body, you know ..."

Everyone has to go sometime. And Samuel Beckett with his fascination for the fatalistic had a knack for turning this truth into theatrical puzzles, where the meaning seems to come from the struggle to solve rather than the solution. Embers is possibly the trickiest of the lot. 

Pan Pan's Gavin Quinn and Aedín Cosgrove have already gravitated towards physicalising Beckett's radio plays. 2011's All That Fall had an audience of listeners sitting leisurely in rocking chairs while listening to the slow and heavy drags of the characters' footsteps on their laboured journey, leading us to consider the inevitable degeneration of our own bodies. To bring Embers to stage, the company collaborate with sculptor Andrew Clancy.

Actors walk across a stage covered in beach shingle, a crunch of gravel released under every step. Vines of speakers hang from the ceiling, suggesting the detail of every decibel. Andrew Bennett unveils the centre-piece of the work: the wooden sculpture of a skull that dominates the setting. 

We are dealt the sound of waves as a man named Henry (Bennett) talks to his dead father. "You always loved the light", he observes, describing how his father preferred to live on the shore where the sun hit the water. Henry fashions himself as a storyteller who once didn't need the company of others. But now he is restless and his stories don't seem to finish, though he recalls one about a man named Bolton and his doctor Halloway - a subplot which emerges throughout. As Henry is joined by his wife and considers his relationships with his father and his daughter, there is a sense of resentment towards bringing life into the world. The big question seems to be: is the world cruel enough for one to pave their own way out of it, as the ambiguous circumstances of the father's death lead us to wonder if he committed suicide and perished in the waves that he visited often.

Henry's father is suspiciously invisible throughout. One possible interpretation is that the behemoth sculpture before us is the skull of the deceased man, and that Quinn is strengthening his presence in the play. As we hear words spoken by Henry, it gives the duality of them being delivered by the skeletal face staring right at us, creating some kind of dialogue from the dead to the living. When Henry's wife enters, voiced by the gentle Áine Ní Mhuirí, she remarks on experiencing two states of time at once: "It is like another time, in the same place". It is also when both actors are finally revealed and illuminated inside the skull, creating an overlap between the bodyless ghostly narrative that came before and the liveness of the performers. The performance coincides life and death, like embers, simultaneously lighting and dying, until choosing between them, either the fire or the rock, the breathing flesh or the dry bone. 

Pan Pan's exquisite production rings with the powerful voice of Andrew Bennett, and an expert sound design by Jimmy Eadie. But nothing fixates like Clancy's skull sculpture: an object so intensely present that it redirects our gaze inwards, behind our skin, our flesh. It feels greater than a piece of theatrical scenography; it's an object of visual art that contains just as much primacy as the dramatic art of the performance.

The skull is animated by Aedín Cosgrove's artful lighting, who is using the form in a way that I have never seen before. Careful hues cast complexions on the face of the sculpture, revealing to us its infinite character. Bustling blue lights create the movement of waves and scarlet rays shimmer to ignite fires. These illuminations guide action in such a way as to replace the actor, another detail in this complex integration of art forms.

Pan Pan are presenting Beckett to audiences in mind-blowing new ways. There is enough in Embers to set you firing in a number of directions but the ultimate effect is a completely numbing experience.

What did everybody else think?

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