Every actor presenting a one-act monologue faces a huge challenge. But it’s a particularly daunting task to present the rigorous words of Samuel Beckett — as Ralph Fiennes does in the world premiere of “First Love” — and not be subsumed by them. Alone on an almost bare stage with Beckett’s formal but often playful prose, Fiennes, under the measured direction of Gate Theater a.d. Michael Colgan, delivers a likably droll, bitterly sad portrayal of a nameless man who beguiles in an hourlong recitation.
The material’s source is the French-language short story “Premier Amour,” written by Beckett just after WWII but unpublished until 1970. The author translated the story into English in 1973.
While it cannot be treated as a major work, this monologue contains much that will be familiar to Beckett enthusiasts: the painful persistence of memories, a perverse obsession with bodily functions. And it serves as a sorrowful meditation on the pain of being unloved and unloving.
Presented by Dublin’s Gate at the annual Sydney Festival, the production figures as the star attraction in a four-part package of Beckett works.
The play begins in darkness with a woman’s voice lightly humming. Gradually, courtesy of a slowly expanding spotlight, Fiennes is revealed standing centerstage, his back to the audience. Dressed in a disheveled suit and overcoat, the actor turns slowly to regard the house, gently removes his hat and briefly contemplates the stone bench on his right. Beginning with a circuitous tale of his father’s death, the nameless narrator relates the inequities leading to his eviction and his taking up residence on said bench.
As he tells it, a woman named Lulu (whose propensity to song annoys the narrator) begins to share the bench with him over a series of nights. Though he resents the intrusion and initially resists her invitations, he becomes an ungrateful freeloader living in Lulu’s flat. He deduces from her noisy male callers that Lulu (also known by the name of Annie) is a prostitute. When Lulu becomes pregnant with his child, the narrator’s cynicism increases and his inability to love is painfully laid bare.
Fiennes’ delivery varies as the monologue progresses. In the beginning, almost like a rusted wind-up toy jerking its way into an oft-repeated motion (recalling the tortured automatons of Beckett’s “Play”), he speaks in a labored rat-a-tat-tat cadence. As the narrative continues, however, his speech becomes smoother, as if oiled by cynicism and disdain for the woman who has taken him in.
This would seem like a trick of the mind, like an aud adjusting to an initially awkward perf, if the opening delivery style did not resume in the closing minutes. The effect is underlined when Fiennes resumes his original solitary back-turned stance as the spotlight diminishes, as though his rubber band needs to be rewound for the next performance.
These tonal transitions reveal that Fiennes is in greater control of the material than is immediately apparent. The ease with which he brings us to the text’s core sadness is masterful –due in no small measure to the writing itself.
Befitting Beckett’s tendency for theatrical minimalism, Eileen Diss’ set design is simple but effective. In addition to the bench, the nearly bare stage has a muddy, opaque veil as a backdrop. Beyond the veil, when the narrator discusses either his father’s home, from which he was evicted, or Lulu’s home, to which he is invited, James McConnell’s finely controlled lighting reveals a Georgian door and a Magritte-like window, respectively, to support Fiennes’ verbal description.