Ahead of Whispering Beasts’ production of Three Short Plays by Samuel Beckett at the Old Red Lion Theatre, we caught up with director Sara Joyce to ask her a few questions.
Your theatre company Whispering Beasts is dedicated to exploring, tracing and nurturing the Irish Voice- a set of themes, concerns and motifs that recur throughout the Irish Canon. Can you briefly explain what these are, with reference to Beckett and his plays/ novels etc in general? And how you go about exploring and nurturing these themes through 2015’s prism?
There’s a definite Irish sense of humour. It’s often dark, macabre even, and stems from an inherent repression and tendency towards self-depreciation. Many Irish plays are grounded in this incredible capacity the Irish have to laugh at ourselves and Samuel Beckett’s work is no exception.
The struggle for, or examination of a sense of identity is something distinctly explored throughout the Irish theatrical canon. A lot of plays carry a traditional structure or dramatic arc. But in those of main man Sam, very little actually happens. Humanity and existence is explored via themes of polarity: good and bad, light and dark, waiting and doing, submission and rebellion, individual and community etc.
The plays aren’t set in either a specific time or reality. Our production has no explicit agenda. By the very virtue of staging the plays in 2015, I imagine we’ve interpreted them through no other lens than that of now.
Why these three Beckett plays in this order, in this particular triptych?
It’s purely coincidence that they appear in order of when they were first published (Act Without Words I, Rough For Theatre II and Catastrophe respectively). The order was ultimately design led. This way, the space becomes more open and sparse over the course of the show. I’ve hummed and hawed over this and changed the order several times because you can appropriate so many varying narratives on to the three plays as a unit depending on their order of performance. We’ve tried every version in the rehearsal room and this is what looked and felt best. I also like that the first two don’t really have a conclusion (Beckett calls for a curtain over the final action we see) whereas Catastrophe has a very definite ending. I could be reading far too much into that though – Beckett probably just switched from using Curtain to End over his career.
Act without Words I, Rough for Theatre II and Catastrophe, are little performed and hardly together. Why, in your opinion, do you think this is so, where do they lie in Beckett’s cannon and why do you think it is important to stage them now?
It’s not easy to be granted the rights to Beckett’s plays; his work is still within copyright and protected by the Beckett estate so we’re very fortunate to have the opportunity to stage them. Beckett is a major influence not only on modern Irish theatre but also theatre in a wider context. These three plays were all originally written in French.
When programming work by classic and popular playwrights, there’s a tendency to appeal to the idea of what a mainstream audience will want. I think this sometimes underestimates audience’s capacity to be challenged and look outside what they know. It also means there are key demographics missing out on the joy of theatre and it’s commodity as entertainment because they feel it’s not for them.
Staging these particular plays now allows admirers of Beckett’s work to experience his writing as it was written to be enjoyed; in performance. And it exposes a new generation of theatre-goers or those unfamiliar with Beckett to the cheeky and vibrant, if at times macabre, entertainment of his plays.
Harold Pinter had a lot to say about Beckett, but one thing he said, which perhaps we might not normally equate with Beckett, is that his work is beautiful. What did he mean by this do you think, and how does this relate to the three pieces? Where might the beauty be and how do you, your creative team and the actors intend to reveal this onstage?
Pinter also said Beckett “grinds my nose into the shit”, which sort of sums up the beauty of his work. He manages to be at once obtuse and straight to the point. You know where you stand with Beckett. There’s no point in having an ‘approach’ to his plays. His text and stage directions read like an instruction manual. The beauty is in the precision of these blueprint-like plans. Throughout the rehearsal process, the most beautiful (if ego-sobering) moments have been the revelations that our version of anything cannot better Beckett’s.
It’s surprisingly difficult not to overload the text with interpretation of what it might be. The team – cast and creative – has worked closely together to find a collaborative point of view. The aim is to create a production that is grounded in shared clarity and confidence while remaining faithful to the integrity of Beckett’s writing, hopefully allowing the audience to connect the dots and the pleasure of taking from it what they will.
All 3 pieces seem to, broadly speaking, relate to indifference- Rough Theatre II and Catastrophe especially feature experienced indifference between characters. There seems to be some debate around whether the effects of this can be seen as triumphant martyrdom or sacrificial victimisation. Do you agree and what is your take?
I’m not sure that I’d call it indifference, only because indifference suggests a kind of passiveness. The choice to be disengaged from another character – in the case of these plays, an authoritative force in relation to a solitary individual – is fundamental to the tension that exists between those characters.
That dichotomy between rebel and victim is one of the big challenges we’ve found in staging the plays. Is the man in Act Without Words I a hero or a fallen everyman? Is ‘C’ in Rough For Theatre II contemplating suicide or merely gazing at the stars? And is ‘P’ in Catastrophe submissive in being a movable prop or cleverly biding his time for revolt? Personally, I was attracted to these plays for what I saw as glimmers of hope and of faith in humanity.
But it’s not for me to press that interpretation on to the plays or an audience. That’s the beauty of Beckett’s writing. – it’s totally subjective and what one person perceives as indifference, another may interpret as oppression. And then again, there’s every chance that I’m totally wrong.
David Mamet went for a realist approach with his version of Catastrophe for Beckett on Film. Will you be doing the same or do you want the audience to have a different experience?
Our Catastrophe is very different, and not just because I’m not David Mamet! Beckett is very specific about what the characters are wearing, how it is staged etc. The Beckett on film series is by its very nature of being filmed and not staged, was forced to establish a particular approach and different style. Beckett’s plays create a foundation that is like a pendulum, there is a fine balance to be maintained and then subtly shifted to create the drama within a very particular tension. The positioning, spacing and visual dynamic between A, D and P in Catatsrophe is as fundamental to establishing that tension as the text itself. It’s much more difficult to capture that dynamic on film than it is live on stage. Catastrophe isn’t a realist play. For us, that’s what has made the staging of it so much fun.
In the few Beckett plays I have been privileged to see staged, or filmed- or even in some of his prose and early novels, space – its arrangement and how it is used- seems to be important. How will you be using the space at The Old Red Lion and why have you chosen it to stage the plays above any other theatre?
It’s no mean feat to stage these plays, particularly Act Without Words I, in a relatively small venue. Luckily I’m working with a ridiculously talented creative team. The stage at Old Red Lion is beautifully unusual and we have chosen to make the most of the space by taking advantage of its natural architecture.
Old Red Lion has a great reputation for high quality productions and the ambitions of this production are in keeping with Artistic Director Stewart Pringle’s remit for adventurous and innovative proposals. We’re incredibly lucky to be included in this season alongside other exciting productions.
Beckett is often associated with intellect and from the get go, it has been my ambition to debunk the myth that in order to enjoy his work you need to understand it. If that were the case I think we’d all be doomed because who can honestly say they understand it? But because of this, there’s tendency for his plays to be pitched to a very particular audience. While I have no desire or intentions of alienating any lovers of Beckett’s writing, the appeal of these three plays is that they are at their very best in performance.
Theatre is at it’s bones another form of entertainment – imagine if one day people thought of catching a show in the way they would a film at the cinema. Being situated above a pub, Old Red Lion theatre has a casual and social vibe that is the way we want to engage larger and broader audiences. Plus the show’s only an hour long so lots of time for a cheeky drink after some of the Beckettmeister.
Should and do you hope, the audience will laugh? Or inwardly cry? Or both?
I honestly don’t know how the audience will react! I should hope they do both but who doesn’t love a good laugh? As long as they’re not bored. If they’re bored then I definitely got it wrong.
Three Short Plays: Act Without Words I. Rough For Theatre II. Catastrophe. by Samuel Beckett runs at Old Red Lion Theatre April 7th-25th. Book online: www.oldredliontheatre.co.uk or call the box office on 0844 412 4307.
Samuel Beckett was a playwright, novelist, director and poet, widely regarded as one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. His plays include Waiting for Godot, Happy Days, Endgame, Krapp’s Last Tape, Not I, Eh Joe, Footfalls and Rockaby.
Sara Joyce directs. She is currently Assistant Director at Soho Theatre on the most recent production Death of a Comedian currently on tour to Lyric Theatre Belfast and Abbey Theatre Dublin. Last year Sara directed Click, The Playboy Variations and Soho Young Playwrights project, which she will direct again in June, working with very young writers towards a professional production of their own plays.
Whispering Beasts is an award-winning theatre company, founded by Bryan Moriarty and Sara Joyce, dedicated to creating new productions of classic and contemporary Irish plays in London. Its mission is to explore, trace and nurture what it refers to as the Irish Voice – a unifying set of themes, concerns and motifs that recur throughout the Irish theatrical canon.
Whispering Beasts is the winner of the Deutsche Bank Award for Drama and resident theatre company at the London Irish Centre where it is holding workshops in tandem with this project. The company wants to bring Beckett to a new audience, and will be collaborating with Copenhagen Youth Project – a local youth group – throughout rehearsals with a view to feeding their reactions to the plays, and ideas about what they would like to see from theatre into the final production.