Saturday, October 6, 2018

Company review: Samuel Beckett's life-retrospective is a big ask for the stage

Samuel Beckett's late novella about mortality receives a sombre adaptation by Sarah Jane Scaife. Photo: Futoshi Sakauchi

Project Arts Centre, Dublin Theatre Festival
Dates: Oct 4-7

★ ★ ★

It’s a simple premise, but one reserved for epic discovery. A man lying on his back, surrounded by darkness, hears a voice offering new possibilities: “Imagine”.

It’s easy to see in Company, Samuel Beckett’s late novella about mortality, a man suffocating from loneliness. In Company SJ’s sombre adaptation, he is cast as a sculpture, carved into a remarkable picture of human frailty by designer Roman Paska.

Director Sarah Jane Scaife and lighting designer Stephen Dodd have created a striking void here, brushed with light and shadow as if a Caravaggio painting. The man lies on a table, overseen by an inquisitive narrator (Raymond Keane) thinking through ways of imagining companionship. But the voice in the dark, ghostly responding like an eight-ball in Killian Waters’s meticulous video projection, throws up zigzagging questions: “Can the creator crawling in the same create dark as his creature create while crawling”?  Let me read that again.

Scaife, a director committed to staging Beckett’s work, has found revelatory use of the writer’s prose before. The short story collection Fizzles, detailing lifetimes of un-fulfilment, was achingly staged in a dilapidated tenement. By comparison, Company SJ’s first show for an actual theatre building feels trapped. 

Those offsite productions made Beckett’s characters feel tragically imprisoned by their environment, whether it be a car park occupied by rough sleepers in Act Without Words II, or a former ballroom haunted by a woman’s ghost in Footfalls. But in this vacuum Company, with its recollections of an individual’s family and lover, comes to resemble more a cryptic riddle.

Even if Beckett’s life-retrospective is a big ask for the stage, there is a hard-fought attempt at breaking new ground here. The man’s childhood memories of his parents find beautiful shape in Keane’s careful manipulation of the sculpture. Elsewhere, one brief but significant movement will see the man cradled from birth to elderly age, evoking the entire breadth of a human life. 

Keane, costumed by Sinéad Cuthbert into a homage to Beckett himself, illustrates his performance with the light enthusiasms and frustrations of a determined philosopher, but allows for something more emotional as the man searches for reasons to go on when his loved ones are gone. Company has become a portrayal of grief.

The chunks of prose are indigestible but the haunting production advances on, until the end itself. 

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