Saturday morning, time is of the essence and I’m sobering up to reality. A reality littered with commitments and consequences, punctuated by deadlines and decisions. Routinely, I pour myself a scorching hot cup of coffee, check my emails and it is then that I notice a message: ‘preview needed, go to Holywell Street’. Ten minutes later, I’ve been ushered – almost clandestinely – into a small, sparsely furnished sitting room. And so it begins, Play is afoot.
Resolving to “bring some underperformed Beckett to Oxford”, the director, Alannah Jones, has set her sights high. This is no mean feat by any stretch of the imagination, but I assure you – you will not be disappointed. Utterly entrancing, this play will leave you dumbfounded. Quirky, yet captivating its delivery is stupendous, worthy of any stage that springs to mind. I count myself fortunate to be among the first, of what I hope will be many, to witness this, the latest awe-inspiring performance from WiseUp Productions.
Bursting and brimming with energy from the get-go, Play is a demanding piece set against a startlingly brisk pace. Juxtaposing this immediacy, we are confronted with three black urns, each housing a babbling, emaciated head. These ‘figures’, if we may use such terminology, are stock characters of Beckett’s. Those of you familiar with Endgame will undoubtedly detect dramaturgical tropes reminiscent of Nag and Nell, for instance. Yet, there is something fresh, something so subtly nuanced in this portrayal. For one thing, the structure of this work presents itself as less a narrative than a state of being. Lingering aimlessly in the ether, the urn-locked entities are beholden to a schizophrenic existence of contemplation, barely capable of twitching their heads this way or that. The middle urn contains a man (M) while his wife (W1) takes up position to his right and his mistress (W2) occupies the urn to his left. In short, the play centres on ‘The Affair’, its repercussions and a pendulum-like dialogue, swinging from one person in ‘the love triangle’ to another. As with Krapp’s Last Tape, Beckett again toys with the pathos of self-delusion and the bittersweet pangs of memory.
Premiering in 1963, Play is a semi-autobiographical rehashing of Beckett’s own personal life. Shortly after his marriage to Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, his partner of twenty-odd years, Beckett resumed an affair with Barbara Bray, a BBC script-editor. Predictably, their relationship was an uneasy one. I mean, forget attending the play, Bray reviewed it and, in doing so, lambasted the “amiable duplicity” of M as being “all need and weakness and feeble.”
The spotlight, what Jones terms “the fourth character in the play”, acts as an interrogator, inquisitively poking and prodding the characters into submission. Indeed, Billie Whitelaw once referred to it as “an instrument of torture”. Reaching out across the darkness, it chooses the speaker. Manichean elements of truth and ignorance, light and darkness abound. Lacking the slick transitions of previous adaptations, Jones has opted for a more rustic use of the torch, darting over and back betwixt the sullen faces. In some ways, this may be said to stall the blistering pace of the play, but only on rare occasions. Similarly, the set could have benefited from greater shade, or siphoning off of the natural light. Needless to say, however, if this is an issue, it will surely be remedied by relocating to the Burton Taylor Studio later this week. Jones details how this venue is “the perfect location” to explore that “starkness” without losing any of the preview’s close intimacy. After all, it can hardly be argued, “Beckett works best when he’s in your face”.
Opening with a dense polyphonic texture of unintelligible mutterings, musicality is a motif that stretches the length and breadth of Play. Cast in fugue form, it deploys language in a patently musical way, enmeshing three contrapuntal voices together.
Spellbinding, I cannot sing WiseUp’s praises enough. On all accounts this performance has been a rousing success. Yet, with such a minimalistic set, this is not an assessment adjudged sparingly. Nor is it without rhyme or reason. Pondering, perusing over my notes, I’ve tried to place my finger on why exactly this production carries itself so grippingly and I think it boils down to this: the cast. Beckett once commented, “the best possible play is one in which there are no actors, only the text.” If Beckett found a way to compose it, Amelia Brown, Peter Sayer and Alexandra Greenfield have found a way to bring it to life. Skittish and fidgety, all three actors/actresses have dug deep, searched and tapped into the most base and primordial of human instincts, laying them bare before the blinkering eye of a relentless inquisitor.
Hands down, this has been one of my favourite performances during my time at The Cherwell. Admittedly, and allow me to set the record straight – I am something of a ‘Beckett buff’. In that sense, this production could only have gone in either one of two directions: very well or very badly. I am delighted to say it has stayed the course and I eagerly anticipate the full showing, including That Time. Rather than a happy-go-lucky comedy, this is an exposition of the meditative power of theatre, of its catharsis. A timeless classic, I suspect its resonance, my musings on it, will long outlive the lukewarm coffee currently resting on my desk. Fabulous!