“You may love this language, you may not, but as the Irish people say, we’re not here together long.” Bill Irwin is besotted with Samuel Beckett. Disclaiming scholarly (I’d contest this) or biographical bent, he’s delved deep into the author’s work and is “haunted” by it. Irwin has repeatedly tackled/inhabited the obscure material in equal measure as actor and clown, incidentally winning Tony Awards in both guises. I can think of no other artist similarly endowed. Add to these talents omnivorous intellect and you have an evening both challenging and silly.
Irwin begins with Text #1. Balletic hands move fluidly, fingers undulate, shoulders jerk forward chicken-like. He bends, rises up on his toes, and swivels; jaw expands, brows rise, eyes widen and crumple. “What possessed you to come? Unanswerable!” Feet seem to move without permission. “I can’t go, I can’t stay. Let’s see what happens next… At first I only had been here. Now, I’m here still…” Body and face are completely mobile. “It’s an Irish voice about which there is an irony,” he comments, snapping out of immersion, leaving us to wonder whether we imagined it.
Beckett’s “use” of the common Irish man is demonstrated with captivating mime. Throughout the beautifully strategic piece, hats, baggy pants, collars, ties, a voluminous coat and clown shoes are employed to enhance and illuminate. In each case, the performer tells us why. Baggy pants “change not just the silhouette, but the way my body lives inside them.” Beckett’s script directions are apparently physically specific. Irwin conceives “silhouettes” for each character.
“You have to be vigilant with Mr. Beckett’s language and to watch out for his estate,” prefaces an anecdote about getting a line wrong. “I salute you. Long may you thrive – until public domain.” Pronunciation of Godot is given its own elucidating Broadway tale. Additionally, Ciaran O’Reilly, Producing Director of Irish Rep, pointed out that the Gaelic word for forever is go deo. “Would the author, a linguist living in Dublin have known this? Likely.”
There are telling backstage stories about working on various productions often involving appreciated peers. A passage from Watt emerges like Dylan Thomas doing gymnastics. “It’s just a page in the novel, but feels to me like a vaudeville monologue.” The evocation of violence is brought to our attention. One must listen hard.
In Text #9, Irwin seems to be ‘in’ the tall box from which he withdraws costumes. (Later, the box unmistakably becomes a podium, ripe for clowning.) VERY slowly he sinks, then pulls himself up. Finally, the actor extricates himself with lines about the beauty of the skies and the stars. These, he says, echo Dante’s Inferno, Milton, William Styron’s book about depression, Sylvia Plath… “for those who have descended into Hell and are pulling themselves back up.” All this is made clear with a box. A friend reflected that Irwin must love despair to love Beckett. “No, I love a hero, someone who can stare it down.”
Playing Lucky from Waiting for Godot (the character who appears a beast of burden, carrying luggage, tethered to his master), Irwin shows us just that kind of hero in the character’s one breakout speech. He also remarks that the others, at first vociferously objecting to servitude, in the end help rebind the hapless soul.
We’re also privy to directorial differences which change impressions. Visual awareness is enlightened by attention to what draws one offstage – ably demonstrated in clown semblance. Like no one else in our time, Irwin creates palpable theatrical worlds out of almost nothing. Perhaps this is an attraction to Beckett.
A guest appearance by Finn O’Sullivan, currently in the 8th grade, is auspicious. The young actor is preternaturally focused, manifesting innocence, giving distinctive intonation to each and every “Yes, sir,” “No, sir.”
“Most actors feel they were terrible in a Beckett play but can’t wait to do one again.” Still, Irwin tells us, you’re also impatient to get away from him. Donning a straw hat, before a classic spot, the artist does a bit of loosey-goosey dancing. Hat and cane become circus props. Grace is Chaplinesque. Text #11 arrives like a jazzman’s riff, compass internal and secret. “When comes the hour of those who knew them, it’s as if I’m among them…”
An astonishing evening of multifaceted theatrical prowess and consuming curiosity.
Lighting by Michael Gottlieb offers just the right variation and symbiotic tone.
Costume Consultant Martha Hally has a keen eye and sense of the ridiculous.
Photos by Carol Rosegg
“Dear incomprehension, it’s thanks to you I’ll be myself, in the end.”
Samuel Beckett The Unnameable
Samuel Barclay Beckett 1906-1989 was a novelist, playwright, theater director, poet, and literary translator associated with traigcomic Theatre of the Absurd. Beckett lived in Paris and wrote originally in French. He won the 1969 Nobel Prize in Literature for new forms of writing.
Passages from Texts for Nothing, Watt, Waiting for Godot, Endgame, The Unnamable by Samuel Beckett
Irish Repertory Theatre presents
On Beckett – Exploring the works of Samuel Beckett
Conceived and Performed by Bill Irwin
Featuring Finn O’Sullivan
Through November 4, 2018
Irish Repertory Theatre
132 Wesr 22nd Street