Spoiler alert: Exploring Beckett Ends in Catastrophe – but don’t miss it!

Exploring Becket, plays by Samuel Beckett; Directed by Timothy Lone and featuring Gianfranco Celestino, Caspar Schjelbred, Rhona Richards, Anne Comfort and Pierre Akakpo.

People came out of Exploring Beckett looking a little shell-shocked last Friday night. They did not know what to think, let alone to say to each other. But you could see their brows furrowing like question marks and you knew that they would soon recover enough to articulate it. .. ‘What  . .was  . .that  . . all  . .about?’ 
And that’s exactly what Nobel-prize winning playwright Samuel Beckett invites us to ask, not just about his work, but about our lives. We do not expect neat plots and obvious meaning from the man whose best-known work is about two men waiting for someone who never comes.

Like Waiting for Godot, the five short plays performed in ‘Exploring Beckett’ wrangle with life’s big questions, not so much by taking a big bite out of them but by nibbling and chewing and chewing things over. These later works are perhaps even more bleak (if that’s possible), and even more minimalistic (ditto).

In Act Without Words II, the first of the five, director Timothy Lone grouped together for this production, we are shown two very different ways of coping with our Sisyphus’ task of getting up every day and going through the motions and going back to bed again. Does it, in the end, matter, if we shuffle and slouch and medicate our way through our days, buttoned up wrongly, stained and slovenly, or if we leap out of bed energetically and attack our day with military precision and our eyes glued to the stopwatch?

The two actors seemed perfectly cast – lanky, unshaven Gianfranco Celestino greeted the day like many of us do, reluctantly, while Caspar Schjelbred’s character snapped to it with gusto and athletic energy. Without words, these mimes said plenty -  we saw vulnerability and hope in Celestino, and a kind of bravery too. If bravery is not the absence of fear but feeling the fear and doing it anyway, then Celestino played a hero, who despite being worn and weary, keeps on keeping on. Schjelbred’s character was driven and determined – he conquered through control, he mustered up his A game for every single tiny thing he did. But although his fine example might have some audience members trying to wean themselves off their snooze alarms, this model cadet at basic training may be even more tragic than his counterpart – is an unexamined life, after all, even worth living?  Or was he right, in making the most of it since we’re here anyway.

Both actors brought great physicality to the stage and embodied their characters completely. The details – Celestino’s languidly long stretches and Schjelbred’s snap of the comb – created a world we believed in and feared that we, too, inhabited.

Rhona Richards did not have much to physically embody in Not I. Minimalist Beckett took it about as far as you can go and took everything away from the role except a mouth. For the audience, it’s bizarre, captivating.  For the actress, it must be torture. Richards, last seen doing brilliant adlib in The Story in Motion Project’s The Virginia Monologues, flew back to Luxembourg from the Isle of Jersey to be stood up on a box behind a curtain, tied to a contraption and blindfolded so that all the audience could see of her was her spot-lit mouth, running a mile a minute in nearly non-stop dialogue for something like a quarter of an hour. Richards follows some legendary actresses in accepting this challenge, including Billie Whitelaw who said that performing the piece was like ‘falling backwards into hell’, Lisa Dwan who said it was ‘like driving the wrong way down a motorway without any brakes’ and Jessica Tandy.

We can imagine - it was taxing just to watch it, let alone remember and recite the words that kept coming and coming out of this brightly lit, red-lipped mouth on centre stage, waves and waves of perfectly articulated bits and pieces, scattered memories, repeated words attempting to unravel a story too tangled or too long buried to be revealed. Beckett once said that he wanted the piece to "work on the nerves of the audience, not its intellect,” and Richards delivered a performance of which he surely would have approved. It isn’t that she grated on our nerves –  what was unnerving was the desperation and sense of needing to escape permeating the rapid-fire delivery, the intensity of it all attempting to push away the past rather than face it. What was it this woman had endured? How much are we like her, running our mouths at full speed but never daring to speak the truth? And what was it that that other English playwright said about being ‘full of fury and signifying nothing?’ 

After the fifth-gear fast-paced flurry of the red-lipped Mouth, Ann Comfort slowed things down to rocking chair pace in Rockaby. While all eyes had been glued on Richard’s mouth as she let pour the flood of text, Comfort had very little to say on stage, although we heard her thoughts as she rocked and rocked through the magic of recordings. The words were a lullaby of repetition.

“another creature there
somewhere there
behind the pane
another living soul
one other living soul
till the end came
in the end came
close of a long day “.

Like The Mouth, the elegant elderly grannie in Rockaby never refers to herself as I. Using third person makes it less personal, makes it more applicable to any of us. Could it be us, sitting, rocking, thinking, ruminating, waiting for another living soul, until the close of a long day? Comfort’s turn of the century long black dress helped turn the clocks back to the time of Beckett’s youth (Melanie Planchard gets kudos for all the costumes), and the lighting –dare we say it? – was absolutely spot on. Jeanny Kratchowil gets the credit for the lighting design (and Pierre Akakpo as light and sound operator).

Ann Comfort’s character had an easier time of letting go of the past and giving up the ghost than Rhona Richards’ in the next piece, Footfalls. Rockaby had a slightly haunted feel, with a grande dame being slowly rocked to her eternal sleep, and the set here too feels eerie and other-earthly (Paul Biwer did the set and prop design). The stage is dark, and a loosely-woven shawl looked like cobwebs trailing behind Richard’s slight frame as she paced back and forth across the stage. More than one audience member might find themselves counting 1, 2, 3,  4 5, 6, 7, wheel, when going out for the post or waiting for the kettle to boil – the obsessive behaviour felt almost contagious. 

Richards plays two roles, or does she? Is she the deranged daughter of a dying mother, or is she the deranged daughter whose mother has already died and whose voice is only in her mind, or is she herself dead, condemned to pace the floor?  Regardless, she held us riveted as we tried to understand what drove her to this endless wearing down of the floorboards. Like The Mouth, ‘May’ hints at something dark in her past, something she cannot bear to remember. The Mother’s voice was recorded and heard off-stage, and May was on stage the whole time, although wrapped up till nearly hidden. Richard’s managed to flesh out what we could not see – the characters were distinct, convincing . . . haunting.

The night ended in Catastrophe. And here, that’s a good thing. Of the five plays, this felt a little lighter, even getting a few chuckles. Caspar Schjelbred commanded the stage as the Director, full of energy and even fuller of himself as well. Rhona Richards, who we could see at last -  arms, legs and face - was his Assistant who dutifully ‘took note’ of all the Director’s barking orders and had the pluck not to be cowered by his know-it-all rebuffs. They worked well together, Schjelbred in his long fur coat and swag and Richards professional with her red haired swept up and her notebook in hand, both hard at work putting the finishing touches on his magnum opus. Great use was made of the small theatre, with the Director storming up the aisles to look on his creation from afar. Some of the audience leaned away from the aisles as he walked by, so formidable was his presence.

As for the magnum opus? It was the ‘protagonist’ usually played by Gianfranco Celestino, and you could see that the same thin man who slowly crawled out of his sleeping sack in Act Without Words II would make a magnificent magnum opus up on a pedestal. But on Friday 9 December, we were treated to having the director himself do the job. The roles were reversed, now Lone had to do what the Director and the Assistant thought best – and his arms were raised, his head lowered, his stance adjusted.

At last the Director is satisfied. The Protagonist’s head is slightly raised, his whitened face looking downward, illuminated as if caught in the headlights. His back is curved, his bearing slightly fearful of being modeled and manipulated. He stood on the pedestal not like a Roman or Greek statue, not like a mythic god or legendary leader, but an ordinary, slightly beaten down and vulnerable man. Like any of us. Perfect in our imperfections, misfit masterpieces, still standing, although not quite straight, come what may.  

Don’t be like the tramps wondering if they’ll ever meet Godot. Don't wait to see this production. It will make you think. It will make you sad. It will make you laugh. It will make you ask questions to which you don’t know the answer. You might even end up a better human being. And besides that, you may not get another chance to see a mouth, just a mouth, alone on stage.