Monday, December 9, 2013

Souvenirs for the Swindled

Actor Marcus Lamb and cellist Kim V Porcelli in Men Like Us - an arrangement of three Samuel Beckett plays by Mouth on Fire

Last Friday night the Beckett impresarios, Mouth on Fire, produced three of the playwright's one-act plays in the Kevin Barry Room of the National Concert Hall. The company were accompanied by musician Kim V Porcelli, whose looped cello arrangements spun a sound so vast that you could get lost in its despairing folds. First up was Matalang - an Irish language adaptation of Catastrophe - in which an autocratic director (Clive Geraghty) mercilessly arranges the presentation of an actor (Shadaan Felfeli) onstage, stripping his clothes and altering the height level of his arms. Felfeli's trembling turn as the unspeaking, unprotesting protagonist does disturb. "There's our catastrophe!", says the director triumphantly.

We imagine this resounding with the totalitarianism of the twentieth century with this "catastrophe" resembling an utterly controlled citizen. This is the main thread throughout the evening. A production of Rough for Theatre II lacks the hissing hilarity the play is reputed for but it does replicate the Protagonist from Catastrophe in its presentation of an immobile man (this time on the verge of throwing himself out a window) whose actions are controlled by others. Two bumbling bureaucrats (Felfeli and Cathal Quinn) consult dispositions and witness accounts, as if to contain the suicidal man's life in some consideration of whether to let him jump or not. "To sum up ...". "We do nothing else!", interrupts the other frustratedly, suggesting that their attempt to encapsulate the entire meaning of the man's life is pointless. They ultimately decide to let him jump.

This recurring image of the suffering man is given voice in The End, a very appropriate conclusion and the highlight of the evening. An ailing individual details his search for shelter in an unmerciful world, delivered in exquisite detail by the actor Marcus Lamb. The language is lewd, even by Beckett's standards, but it doesn't distract; this work has an enormous sadness, reducing the individual to its most insignificant. Yet, there is something comical in the trivialities of his existence. "I always like those odd jobs", he humbly reveals, as he describes how he modified a boat so as to keep out the water-rats.

In a world where we're swindled out of meaning, where devastation deceives us of any belief in a grand design, it's the trivialities that seem to be the most truthful. For life is trivial when there is no great plan to tie everything together in a meaningful way. Rather, it's meaninglessness that has unexpectedly become poignant in theatre.

Time running out for Bush Moukarzel in Souvenir 

The "catastrophe" in Catastrophe may be that image of pain and suffering, as if a citizen of a totalitarian regime but it can also, more literally, suggest the reduction of the actor as an interpreter of a writer's work. Bush Moukarzel, the actor in Souvenir by the company Dead Centre (Project Arts Centre, Dec 4-14), may just epitomise this idea then. Not only does he faultlessly transmit the author's words (by virtue of being the writer himself) but he's very much the conveyor of insignificance in the same spirit as the "catastrophes" or those suffering men that feature in the plays produced by Mouth on Fire.

Souvenir spins from Marcel Proust's novel In Remembrance of Things Past - the quintessential tome of the twentieth century. It plays on Proust's story of a man's recollections of growing up, his participation in society and engagements with art and romance. Moukarzel races like an eccentric but softens for his aesthete's more delicate moments. The design is also impressive, with a set crammed with categorised boxes ("theatre, the", "Owls (not what they seem)", "broken glass"). Adam Welsh's sound and Josh Pharo's lighting work cunningly, and combine memorably to capture the chaotic fallout of the story's romance. 

But from its opening image of Moukarzel on a treadmill - as if running to nowhere - Souvenir seems to concern itself with failure. Like how Proust used devices to trigger memory in his novel, the actor's choice in a goldfish is comical but ineffective (considering their own limited retention of memory). A blackboard with the written message "Make the play" automatically destroys any theatrical illusion. And the play admits itself to elegant ephemerality in the image of its actor suspended in a human hourglass, the sand signalling the running out of time in its downpour. This energetic performance is reaching its expiration.

The power of meaninglessness as a subject is not a new revelation, as Mouth on Fire's productions of Beckett continue to remind us. But Dead Centre are finding powerful new vehicles for the idea, as Souvenir's follow-up, LIPPY, reminded us earlier this year. This glimpse into the boarded-up dwelling of the Mulrooney women from Leixlip who entered a suicide pact in 2000 was just that: a glimpse. Sense could not be made out of the tragedy, and the performance artfully choreographed the truth out of our hands.

It's extraordinary of theatre to make beauty out of a universe that flunks us out of its secrets. We might all recognise ourselves, in this sense, as "catastrophes", with the meaninglessness of the world found achingly in the life of Lamb's wanderer in The End, in the keening strings of Porcelli's cello arrangements, and in Moukarzel's delicate testament that if somebody asks you a question, it's acceptable to say: "I don't know". 

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