ARTYFACTS: Day 3 – Bootlegging Beckett

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Day 3 – Bootlegging Beckett

Three hours of intense monologue by a sole actor to a hardcore Beckett audience. Apart, that is, from the woman sitting next to me, who was clearly deranged. She spent three hours rumbling around in her bag, inconveniently placed on the empty seat between us, switching an ancient cassette recorder on and off. Bootlegging Beckett is a pretty rare obsession. I felt like screaming – get an iPOD – get digital – at least it’s quiet! On top of this she guzzled a pint of beer and took notes by constantly leaning down and noisily picking up and putting down an A4 pad from between her legs on the floor. I’m not sure that she was actually listening to the performance at all. Yet she was first to her feet at the end for the encore.

OK, I’ve got that out of my system. What about the show? A solitary figure, centre stage in a single pool of light, dressed in a poor man’s clothes – but all to clean. The Director needs to spend some time with some real tramps and poor people – there’s always stains. The first reading is from the opening section of Molly and his dealings with his mother, encounters with the police, killing a dog with his bicycle. The hapless Molloy is alone in the world and his encounters are stripped down to knocks on his blind mother’s skull, forgetful replies to interrogation and incidents over which he has no control. Thus far it’s encounters with the real world that emphasise his predicament. The language is just plain beautiful.

Reading versus listening
I wasn’t sure if this would work – book readings of written texts that exist as print and are mostly read in silence by the reader – and silence you need. Reading Beckett needs concentration. My copy of the book was bought and read in 1976 – 30 years ago. I'm nearer my own death than birth! I can still remember where it was read. So how would it be when spoken? Very different. The image of the performer becomes Molloy’s self. That is the focal point. In reading there is no visual focal point. Your imagination constructs Molloy. You become Molloy as the word ‘I’ blurs between the narrator and reader. You stop, re-read, reflect, move on – make a stuttering progress. In performance it’s at the performer’s pace. Nevertheless, the performance is a considered reading with appropriate pace and pauses, teasing out the humour, and the aching pain.

Language as the limit of thought
The second reading was from Malone Dies where Malone is literally writing a story but the character takes over and writes his life story. This is more fantastical but tedium and death are there from start to the end. The language gets more fragmented as Beckett painfully pulls memories and words from his mind. Consciousness is laid bare with no stabilities of plot or character to anchor the reader/listener. The language convulses and turns in on itself, words all too inadequate. In this work he pushes out with words and hits their limits, pulling back when they fail with words like ‘gladly’ and ‘bellyful’. This is the manifestation of Wittgenstein’s fly in the bottle, that bounces off the glass but doesn’t know what the lies beyond. Language as the limit of thought. There is no edge for there is no other side.

The pauses are longer in this reading, and this is where it starts to work, for in these long pauses, there’s no stillness. Thoughts flood into your own consciousness. I find myself obsessing about the mad Beckett Bootlegger sitting next to me. The tapes keep clicking to a halt and she has to swap them over – does she want to sell them, use them to teach, or is it some Beckett-like exercise in recording memories? Consciousness doesn’t stop and we’re its helpless victims. There’s no real silence.

Beckett calls
Surreally, a mobile starts to bleep, despite repeated instructions to switch them off. The performer stops and hangs in the air mid-gesture. On and on it goes, the owner hoping the ring will stop and they will not be exposed to ridicule. Time stretches out and it stops – finally. The performer looks up as the noise has axed into his consciousness and continues seamlessly. Wonderful! You can almost forgive the owner – forgetting memory and forgetting is what much of these texts are about.

The cassette player is hissing annoyingly but this is where the performance takes flight. He’s swirling around in words, phrases, ever more confused as he retreats into an increasingly solipsistic state. This is a Cartesian quest as he strips himself down to pure thought. The silences are even longer and all the more intense. It is uncompromisingly painful, being stuck in the web of language, not being able to think without its crutches. The hiss of the cassette recorder makes these silences even more despairing.

4 stars


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