Sunday, September 1, 2013

In Beckett the Body is the Thing so Act Without Words

Promotional art for Company SJ and Barabbas's joint productions of Beckett's Act Without Words II and Rough for Theatre One


Samuel Beckett was the great painter of a landscape blasted and smoldering after the second World War. But does the effect of him translate from the shell-shocked spectators seeing Waiting for Godot and Endgame in the 1950s to contemporary audiences, or do the plays need to find a way to respond to the devastation of today?

If so, director Sarah Jane Scaife and performer Raymond Keane may have found a way to do just that, as they relocate two of Beckett's one-acts to the city streets at night as part of the Dublin Fringe Festival.

The mime play Act Without Words II (which comes in at just over two sheets of sheer stage directions) had already been produced by the duo in the early 1990s. Scaife was qualified with her sharp sensibility of Yeats and Beckett, and Keane had trained in the Marcel Marceau camp of French mime. Their collaboration then ended. "I dropped her", Keane jokes. The reality was that he was going on to co-found the Barabbas company while she was off to direct Beckett in every corner of the world.


"I went all around the world working with different people who had never heard of Beckett", says Scaife, "and you find that you can't just go with the form and the prescription of it. You have to look at the other culture and see if there's anything there that translates and communicates between us".

She describes an episode where she traveled to Mangolia to work on a production of Godot and the performers were completely confused and working with a badly translated text. She spoke of existentialism but the ideas failed to transmute. But when she drew on the local example of a tradition of nomadic living in Mongolia she found that it was a lifestyle that they had all experienced. Like Estragon and Vladimir, they all had intimate experience with travelling and waiting.

Importantly, she found that the actors better understood the text from a physical approach rather than a literary one, by embodying Estragon's hunger and Vladimir's prostate pains. By doing so she realised that the words in Beckett's plays may exist in one universal state but the body written into them is culturally specific. And after working with actors in Georgia, India, Greece and America (those are just the places she mentioned) she has returned to Ireland to find a specifically Irish body for Beckett.

"I was on Grafton Street one day and there was a guy, an addict, stooping down to pick something off the ground, and he stooped down so slowly and so perfectly balanced that he reminded me of a Butoh dancer", she says. She thought of Keane and of doing Act Without Words II on the street with a sensibility towards Irish homelessness and addiction.

The mime play has been on tour, and after very careful consideration they've added Rough for Theatre One as a companion piece. This is a theatrical sketch with spoken text featuring a blind violinist and a cripple. "We're putting his words side-by-side with the city", says Scaife.

Considering Beckett's choice of actors and his working relationship with Buster Keating, it's worth mentioning Keane's core discipline of clown. "He understands the archetype and the reality of the clown", says Keane. "The two lads in Godot, they're a clown act. They're hobos. But as well as that there's the darker side - the clown as a whole and not just ... [whistles circus music]. It's the clown as storyteller and representing all of your life, whether it's your beauty, joy, love and everything in between down to your hairy arse and your guts. He can expose that".

Both performances take place at night in a secret location. "I really feel that this place, the city of Dublin, is where Beckett's body got its resonance and thoughts", says Scaife.

It sounds like a Dublin homecoming, for the playwright, for his audience, and with hopes of constructing a bigger Beckett installation in the future, this collaboration between Scaife's Company SJ and Keane's Barabbas could signal something special.

"It's not just the play", says Scaife. "It's the play interacting with the city. It's about the audience being in the city and being open to it".


Act Without Words II and Rough for Theatre One by SJ Company and Barabbas runs Sept 14-17, meeting at Screen Cinema. 

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