We Must Go On: Re-directing Beckett

JoAnne Akalaitis and Deborah Warner re-direct Beckett

From Happy Days. Photo by Evi Filaktou.

A year on from Samuel Beckett’s centenary—when festivals, theater productions and conferences were held around the planet—New York City has two new productions arriving back to back that will then share the spotlight through most of January. Mikhail Baryshnikov and Fiona Shaw take the leads at New York Theatre Workshop and BAM, respectively, in just the sort of high-profile events that weren’t in great evidence here during 2006.

New York’s sparse participation in the centenary made for a glaring gap in the celebration of modern theater’s uncompromising and, arguably, most influential voice. Major festivals packed the calendars in Dublin (the writer’s birthplace), Paris (his adopted home) and London during the centenary, but an anticipated Lincoln Center collaboration with Dublin’s Gate Theatre didn’t materialize. “They put all their money into Tom Stoppard [and his Coast of Utopia cycle],” said Beckett scholar S.E. Gontarski of Lincoln Center’s decision, during an interview this spring in his FSU office, where he edits the Journal of Beckett Studies. Gontarski spoke of the centenary’s impact and of his wide-ranging engagements, which began with co-helming a February 2006 conference featuring the swansong address of James Knowlson, Beckett’s authorized biographer. That conference was positioned early, “when everybody was at the top of their games,” said Gontarski, and led into “a great and exhausting year—I made my hundred thousand mile platinum-level certification,” concluding with a four-month residency overseeing Beckett-related activities in Tokyo.

Gontarski stopped counting his centenary invitations at fifty, coming “from Taiwan to Macedonia.” He said that the wealth of stagecraft and research during 2006 has brought fresh vigor and investigation to the world of Beckett’s work, after acknowledging concerns that the eventful year might have led to over-saturation. Dublin was “perhaps the most audacious proclamation of that: Everywhere you turned in the city, Beckett was emblazoned on something,” Gontarski said. “So on one hand you have this commercialization of Samuel Beckett, and on the other hand you have a lot of people coming back to Beckett and reading more closely than they ever have before. And that’s generating remarkable new and energizing interest.”

The upcoming New York productions reflect this new energy, and refract on the critical issue of Beckett’s theatrical legacy and directorial liberties. Though Fiona Shaw will be playing one of Beckett’s delicious roles, the optimistic, saucy Winnie in Happy Days, it’s a staging of the remarkably static Eh Joe, a play written for television, and other less familiar work that comprise the program in which Baryshnikov is involved (the cast includes Bill Camp, who was dominant in director Robert Scanlan’s 2006 evening of Beckett radio and television plays at the 92nd Street Y). And each director—JoAnne Akalaitis at NYTW and Deborah Warner at BAM—has done work on Beckett that became a contentious landmark.

Akalaitis cofounded Mabou Mines in 1970; the company did extensive work on Beckett, with two members, David Warrilow and Fred Neumann, developing close relations with him and staging his prose works, though most permissions for non-stage writings were summarily refused. In 1976, she staged one of Beckett’s radio plays, then in 1984 her production of Endgame with the American Repertory Theater was threatened with a legal injunction by Beckett’s representatives. Criticized for Douglas Stein’s massive subway station set, for the interracial cast, for repeating lines and for ex-husband Philip Glass’s incidental music, a settlement was reached that allowed the show to go on. But the negative publicity made Akalaitis’s Endgame a casebook for the conflict between directors interested in interpreting Beckett’s work, and the stringent adherence to the texts and stage directions insisted upon by Beckett—or by those who had influence with him. In his book Beckett in Performance, Jonathan Kalb notes that a rep sent to report on Akalaitis’s ART production was also producing an Endgame production, also in New England.

In 1994, another prominent tussle ensued, this time with Deborah Warner’s production of the short play Footfalls with Fiona Shaw, at the Garrick in London. Warner and Shaw—whose fruitfully creative partnership has included a Richard II, and their livid Medea at BAM in 2002—elected to have the play’s relentlessly pacing soloist, May, head out to the dress circle rather confining herself to the dim spot of light described in the stage directions. Beckett’s nephew Edward, the estate’s executor since the writer’s death in 1989, said they’d shattered the play’s “hypnotic effect.” The production wasn’t permitted to tour to Paris, where it’s coproducer reportedly lost £25,000.

Akalaitis’s NYTW program features Baryshnikov in three silent roles, and pairs him with Bill Camp as a pair of Beckettian derelicts, with original music by Philip Glass and Jennifer Tipton’s lighting. It also brings focus to two elements in Beckett’s theater: his love of physical humor, displayed in a pair of mime pieces, Act Without Words I & II (the first of which was written for ballet dancer Deryk Mendel), and the ongoing efforts to stage works written for television and radio and as fiction. A great fan of vaudeville and burlesque, he had turned to the aged Buster Keaton for Film, his all-but silent half-hour movie, after Chaplin and Zero Mostel said no. Eh Joe was written in 1965; by the next year, it had premiered on German television under Beckett's direction, with other productions on the BBC, and on Newark's WNDT, where it was directed by Alan Schneider. The play is a highlight of the fertile period in which he was experimenting with technical parameters of both television and radio broadcast—on the screen, the camera tracks the silent title character, who cringes as the voice of a former lover berates him with his romantic misdeeds.The estate has been giving rights to productions of these non-stage plays that retain the guise of broadcast mediums—for example, the Scanlan production at the 92nd Street Y was introduced by the director, and filmed. Akalaitis’s program includes the twenty-minute piece, Rough for Theatre I, infused with another vital aspect of Beckett’s work: cruelty. In it, a blind busker and a cripple in a wheelchair meet then vie for shards of influence—a harshly comic encounter that betters neither.

Akalaitis’s shorts are scheduled to run until January 20, and on January 8, Warner’s Happy Days opens at BAM, having received its U.S. premier in late November at the Kennedy Center in D.C. After the Footfalls debacle, the director was rumored to have been banned for life from directing Beckett. Having been denied rights to doWaiting for Godot with the tramps played by Shaw and Maggie Smith (an Italian court approved a female version last year, ruling against the estate), Warner got the green light for Happy Days. Opening in January at the National Theatre, its run helped extend the centenary into 2007. Shaw brings her blazing energy to one of post-war theater’s vaunted parts. Joan Plowright’s pregnancies prevented her from premiering the role (Ruth White did so here, at Cherry Lane in 1961). Then Madeleine Renaud, French theater’s grande-dame, requested the Paris opening and became the playwright’s favorite interpreter (her equally famous husband, Jean-Louis Barrault, took on the gruff lines of Willie). Jessica Tandy, Peggy Ashcroft and the superb Beckett actress Billie Whitelaw have all played Winnie. In James Knowlson’s biography, Beckett schools Brenda Bruce with a metronome, while at his own Berlin production, “he argued that precision and economy would produce the maximum of grace.” Among recent Winnies in New York, Rosaleen Linehan brought brusque grace as the Gate Theatre did their cycle of Beckett’s stage plays for Lincoln Center’s inaugural festival in 1996, and she highlights the DVD box, Beckett on Film. Joyce Aaron’s 2002 performance, directed by Joseph Chaikin at Cherry Lane, was less impressive, while Lea De Laria’s was not impressive, and Robert Wilson’s colorfully still HDTV appropriation, projected at Paula Cooper Gallery in January of this year, dispensed altogether with the issue of acting, and set Winona Ryder mute in the set’s vast mound.

From Happy Days. Photo by Hugo Glendinning.

For all the comic impact Beckett bestowed on Winnie—Patricia Routledge would seem another powerful fit, with her tense skill in Alan Bennett monologues and her small-screen bluster as Hyacinth in Keeping Up Appearances—unsettling ramifications are provoked by the blasted set from the moment the curtain goes up. The playwright cut allusions to nuclear catastrophe from the first draft, and this year’s London reviews referenced global warming. This is Beckett’s world, shaping bleak art from our plights and blights (S.E. Gontarski mentioned that in Soviet-era Poland, those out after curfew claimed to be waiting for Godot). He may also have been responding to the needs of his medium: NYU scholar Martin Harries, in his research into theater’s evolution after film and television, considers Winnie’s “radical locatedness” a response to the camera’s mobility. In Godot and Endgame, Beckett’s protagonists complain incessantly and hardly leave the stage. By Happy Days—his final two-act play—Winnie can’t leave the stage. Beckett was refining what critic Martin Esslin incisively termed his “visual poetry,” which would achieve such phenomenally condensed, emotionally indelible works as Come and Go and Not I.

Another much-anticipated production was withdrawn after being announced by St. Ann's Warehouse for their winter season. It would have brought the Gate Theatre's new Beckett Season, which traveled to the Sydney Festival in January 2007. There, the four-part program included Charles Dance (standing in for Michael Gambon) in Eh Joe, directed by Atom Egoyan, and Ralph Fiennes in a world premiere of First Love, from one of Beckett's witheringly funny novellas. Those productions, and others as accurate and imaginative as the Classical Theatre of Harlem's recent Godot, which they've restaged outdoors in New Orlean's Lower Ninth Ward, and Andrei Belgrader's Endgame with John Turturro coming to BAM this May, indicate that Beckett's theatrical vision has much yet to yield.

Previews for JoAnne Akalaitis’s Beckett Shorts begin Dec. 5 at New York Theatre Workshop; for tickets and further info, visit www.nytw.org. Deborah Warner’s Happy Days opens Jan. 8 and runs through Feb. 2 at Brooklyn Academy of Music: for tickets further info, visit www.bam.org.

Contributor

Alan Lockwood

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