Beckett is Difficult.
The capital there is not a typo, or a piece of sloppy editing by my theatre-editor overlord, but for emphasis. It is capital-d Difficult. It is difficult for everyone: performers, directors, and the audience alike. In spite of this difficulty, there was much to admire in the ambition and approach Wanton Theatre brought to their evening of three Beckett plays, Not I, Embers, and Rockaby.
The most successful of the pieces on display by someway was Not I – Alice Gold impressively tackling the monologue at top speed, navigating the repeated phrases and answer-less questions with ease and grace. Gold’s ability to get her tongue around the monologue was underpinned with a sense of real understanding and intelligent interpretation. Gold is an actor who clearly has managed to ‘get’ Beckett’s monologue and this ensured the audience had a clear interpretation of the piece. As with most Beckett plays, the technical demands are high: the stage directions call for the suspension of the actor three metres above the stage, with only a pair of lips on display. A fabulous performance was somewhat marred by the execution of these demands, with far more of Gold’s face on display due to unfocused lighting and a large hole in their otherwise strong solution (a large panel of wood with a hole cut out) to the ‘suspension problem’. Perhaps a seemingly minor quibble but when so much of the play’s power comes from the striking visual of a pair of lips suspended in the air providing a stream of consciousness it was a shame to have more of the actor on display.
Embers, a radio play, was the second play of the evening and was more of a mixed success. Sebastian Allum and Jen Grace are clearly talented voice actors, their voices malleable and flexible enough to cope with the considerable demands of acting for radio. Allum has a real gift for holding an audience’s attention, particularly admirable bearing both the complexity of Beckett and the length of his monologues in mind. However, Embers was played at one level throughout: there was little change in tone or pace which – when coupled with an empty stage to befit the radio play – meant the play lost its way in terms of audience engagement. I would have liked Ryan Hay, the director of all three plays, to have brought more out of his actors with more tonal play and variety.
The most difficult of the three monologues was Rockaby. Despite Annie Macaulay grabbling bravely with the text, this production did not achieve the clarity of Not I. Exploring the fading moments of a woman’s life, interwoven with the memories and life of her mother, there was little conscious fading over the course of the monologue. The skill Macaulay demonstrated in matching the live voice with the recorded memories would have been enhanced by a more rhythmical approach, allowing the words a more hypnotic tone.
With more clarity in choices and more daring with technical skill this could have been an arresting evening – not nearly enough Beckett happens in St Andrews! – but there were decisions made which hindered the audience fully understanding and engaging with the pieces. Perhaps with more rehearsal time and certainty in choices the plays would have taken on a more lucid tone: Wanton Theatre are clearly making interesting and exciting choices in the plays they are staging and the ways of working, and I certainly hope this continues to be the case!