Centenary tributes test Beckett's limits

DUBLIN — In his centenary year, the wolves are at Samuel Beckett’s door — and it’s his nearest and dearest who are ushering them in.

Twelve years ago, the playwright’s nephew and literary executor Edward Beckett famously referred to directors who deviate from the strict rules for staging his uncle’s work as predators against whom “you’ve got to make a stand.”

The writer himself, of course, was notoriously exacting about how he envisioned his work: Many of his short later plays include more stage directions than dialogue.

The Beckett Centenary Festival, running at various venues in Dublin and London through April, offers evidence that the Beckett estate has begun to loosen its control over the playwright’s canon — in somewhat erratic ways that echo Beckett’s own habits.

“It’s well-documented that Samuel gave permission to theater people he knew or trusted to do things with his plays that he wouldn’t allow others to do,” says Dennis Kennedy, professor of drama at Dublin’s Trinity College, the playwright’s alma mater. “This has put Edward in the impossible position of having to predict what his uncle would have done in a given situation.”

Some of the estate’s more rigid interventions have made headlines: its refusal to allow Deborah Warner’s 1994 production of “Footfalls” to tour because it had actress Fiona Shaw performing in various areas of the theater rather than on the prescribed tiny pathway of stage area; its threat of closure to Company B Belvoir’s 2003 Sydney staging of “Waiting for Godot” because it included “illegal” music, prompting director Neil Armfield to lambaste the estate as “the enemy of art.”

In recent years, however, a strong affinity has developed between Edward Beckett and Dublin’s Gate Theater that has led to some startling and, many argue, welcome innovations. The most significant has been Beckett on Film, the creation in 2001 of screen versions of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays, despite his well-known aversion to the transposition of his work between different media. Beckett on Film was co-produced by Gate director Michael Colgan as an offshoot of the Gate’s 1991 festival of Beckett’s plays.

Interestingly, the standout offering in the Gate’s current nine-production Centenary season involves an innovation similar to the Beckett on Film series, but in reverse. “Eh Joe,” directed by Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan, is a live staging of Beckett’s 1965 teleplay that, as written, has a camera moving forward toward a lone actor’s face as a woman’s voice castigates him for past transgressions. Egoyan brilliantly creates a mixed-media effect by having a live camera in the wings filming Michael Gambon’s face and projecting the image onto a scrim in front of the playing area.

Using technology to create such effects “wasn’t imaginable at the time Beckett wrote,” Egoyan tells Variety. “I’m trying to reactivate the text, to look at how these ideas can be best served and brought to a new audience in the present day.”

Another innovative approach to Beckett being spotlighted in the current centenary festivities is that of the Irish-French company Gare St Lazare Players, which has the estate’s permission to “recite” Beckett’s prose.

Having started nearly a decade ago creating a three-hour adaptation of the trilogy of novels “Molloy,” “Malone Dies” and “The Unnamable,” actor-director team Conor Lovett and Judy Hegarty-Lovett have recently branched into Beckett’s shorter prose. The company performed four short pieces as well as the trilogy in the centenary, in advance of performances at Gotham’s Bard College and UCLA Live this fall.

“We’re trying to do something that I think is quite close to the form of Beckett’s writing,” explains Hegarty-Lovett. “You’re presented with a man telling you a story, but he could also be the characters he’s describing.”

The Beckett estate came to see their work early on, says Hegarty-Lovett, and, apparently convinced that Gare St Lazare were not “doing anything untoward,” has maintained good relations since.

The worldwide acknowledgement of Beckett’s greatness via events such as the centenary will hopefully put the fears underlying limitations on interpretations of his texts to rest, says Egoyan.

“I think there is a concern that, if a play is being interpreted in a certain way that doesn’t work, and that is some spectators’ first experience of the play, that can be damaging,” he adds. “But the more institutionalized a writer’s work is, the less that fear should play a part.”

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