The homeless man who narrates the story of his life in “First Love” is the kind of character only Samuel Beckett and his admirers — thesp Ralph Fiennes and helmer Michael Colgan notable among them — could love. Maddened by the chaotic world, this nameless wretch has recoiled from all human contact, retreating into a still, solitary existence that consists mainly of curling up in bed. In his virtuoso solo performance, Fiennes meticulously explores every level of his spiraling descent into despair, finding an expression, a tone of voice, even a special laugh for every phase of his disintegration. Prepare to be mesmerized.
That’s some package Lincoln Center picked up from Dublin’s Gate Theater for Festival 2008. Originally mounted for the 2006 Beckett Centenary Festival, the solo shows and prose and poetry readings were extracted from every creative area of Beckett’s work except the theater. What’s amazing is how very theatrical they have turned out to be.
Having been adapted from a novella written in the first-person narrative voice, “First Love” was halfway to being a theater piece, anyway. What it took to bring its tormented narrator to life was Fiennes’ uncanny visualization of the storyteller and the profound understanding brought to bear on his existential pain.
Colgan, now in his 25th year as director of the Gate Theater, seals the deal by making sure that not a breath of stale air gets between the performer and his part. The black back wall, the inescapable illumination and the Spartan bench that is the sole piece of stage scenery are all pure Beckett — as specific to the mood of the piece as the bone-dry language of the monologue.
Before he even says a word, Fiennes has us in thrall with his eyes — sunk in a bald skull and blazing with pain and madness. Although he cringes inside his shabby brown overcoat and clasps a beat-up fedora protectively against his heart, his feelings are so raw he might as well be naked. The big shock, though, is to hear this wretched creature laugh.
What’s so funny? Not much, to hear Fiennes narrate the circumstances that brought him to his sorry state. Standing in a cemetery and giggling about the stench of the corpses beneath his feet (“a trifle on the sweet side”), he speaks of his father’s death and how that led to his being turned out of the family home. But despite his grotesque jolly insistence on moving on to “less melancholy matters,” his twitchy gesture of burrowing his face in his shoulder gives away his true feelings.
But so much for the pleasant part of the evening …
Once he sits down on that bare bench and takes stock of his audience, this lost soul is ready to tell you the real story. The one about the woman named Lulu who took him in and gave him sanctuary. Who gave him food and a bed and a child. The woman so good to him he had to leave her.
“The mistake one makes is to speak to people,” he says, with the insane earnestness of someone who literally cannot live unless he can live in silence. Yet, he insists, “I loved her” — a line that Fiennes delivers with such simplicity that the words cut deeper than any knife. “Either you love or you don’t,” he says, in the same clear tone of absolute honesty — leaving us with one final, shattering glimpse into the mind of a writer who made his lonely choices and to the end of his life refused to flinch from them.