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Beckett-land: spirit and letter, stage and screen

Keith Gallasch

John Hurt, Krapp’s Last Tape John Hurt, Krapp’s Last Tape

One of the curious dimensions of the Sydney Festival’s Beckett celebrations (an academic talkfest, live productions of Waiting for Godot and Endgame, Town Hall addresses from JM Coetzee, Herbert Blau and Luce Irigaray, and 19 commissioned films of Beckett plays) was the possibility of comparing live and filmed performances of Godot and Endgame. I saw both versions of the latter. Endgame is certainly my favourite Beckett, his too, and reckoned to be the greatest of the 20th century by Beckett director and scholar Blau. Both film and stage production had much to recommend, though the film outstripped the Sydney Theatre Company version, directed by Benedict Andrews, in getting the powerplay between the play’s principals, Hamm and Clov, knottily and rhythmically right.

Before pursuing these comparisons, a little about the dispute between Edward Beckett, executor of his uncle’s estate, and Neil Armfield, director of Belvoir Company B’s production of Waiting for Godot over the use of music (composer Alan John), particularly the addition of a song in Latin sung by the Boy. The story goes that Beckett left the theatre during the opening night curtain call and threatened to close the show for breach of contract. Armfield offered to drop the consonants in the song, the contract was closely scrutinised, no breach sighted, the show went on. Armfield, however, delivered a broadside at the Beckett symposium, defending theatre-making as a collaborative venture and querying the sacredness of classic texts.

With well-known classics of a 100 or more years of age, we’re not surprised if bits go missing, as long as they’re not what we regard as vital. With lesser known classics who would know what’s been cut? But if the plays were written only some 50 years ago, as in Beckett’s case, and copyright still holds and there’s an estate actively policing productions of the work, what’s to be done?

Towards the end of the Beckett film event, the producers of the series, Alan Moloney and Michael Colgan (Artistic Director, Dublin’s Gate Theatre Company) appeared on the State Theatre stage with session host, literary critic Don Anderson, pondering the significance of the stoush. Anderson clearly thought it a pity that the terms of the argument had become so reductive (“Waiting for Beckett jnr. ‘Bugger that for a joke’”, read a front page story header in the Sydney Morning Herald, Jan 10), while Colgan, an admirer of Armfield’s directing, thought the consequences potentially dire, with an ever more vigilant Edward Beckett taking a fresh look at the wording of all his contracts. In a letter to the SMH editor, Stephen Sewell defended the rights of playwrights.

Such is the power of the Beckett estate that the making of the films required the writing of a set of protocols so that each film director knew the limits of their interpretative freedom. Edward Beckett approved all the directors’ treatments: Colgan thought him more flexible than usual because of the change of medium. The producers had to choose their directors carefully in the first place: Neil Jordan missed out on Endgame because he wanted to insert a cutaway to the punt scene of Hamm’s recollections. He got, instead, Not I, where we see Julianne Moore briskly settle into a wooden armchair with a tight headrest winged against each ear before cutting to her quickfire monologue with some 4 cameras in extreme closeup on Moore’s mouth and, we were told, filmed in one take—a claim for theatrical integrity? Almost every film was done by the book, and exceptions to stage directions carefully monitored, though mostly allowed. Colgan had initially negotiated not with Edward Beckett, but with another figure in the estate whom he suspected thought these films were all to be recordings of stage productions. Colgan did not disabuse him. Asked if there was a time after which the plays will need to be radically reinterpreted and stage directions ignored or revised, Alan Moloney thought 50 years. After all he said, the World War II and post-war horrors that informed Beckett’s life and his plays are still, for many, within living memory—we are still living in Beckett’s time. Moloney is heard to muse over the end credits of the ‘making of...’ documentary screened on SBS, that Happy Days might one day be set in a hairdressing salon.


Just as a musical score can be variously interpreted without ignoring notes or tempos the variety of the films reveal there was plenty of room for interpretative freedom, not that anyone got particularly adventurous, Anthony The English Patient Minghella aside perhaps. The producers certainly thought his film of Play the most effective experiment of the set. Instead of 3 of the living dead, their heads sticking out of urns, running over and over the trivialities of an affair that ruined their lives, Minghella places them in a ghastly, swirling fog purgatory, an infinite cemetery populated by many more of the rotting tormented. While the image remains unsettling it nonetheless assumes a horror film literalness that a sparely staged version would not.

The odd thing is that Minghella has framed his approach as calculatedly experimental—in the very manner of experimental film. For all the slickness of the image, the film itself breaks, flares, scratches. Camera pans lurch, often with a speed complementing the astonishing drive of the vocal delivery Beckett required. So watching is as demanding as listening. Exciting at the time but on second viewing all too over-determined.

Krapp’s Last Tape

Producer Colgan was of the opinion that naturalising some of Beckett’s abstract stage imagery was inevitable for film. What, he asked, would be the point of filming Krapp at his desk, with his tape-recorder, as if in an otherwise empty space—“film demands furniture.” It’s debatable. In the much shorter Ohio Impromptu, Jeremy Irons plays a man at a table reading to a duplicate self in an empty space which only transforms into colour and detail at the very end after one of the pair has evaporated. In Atom Egoyan’s rendition of Krapp’s Last Tape, brilliantly performed by John Hurt, Krapp is given a complete office-cum-workshop space, tightly framed and mostly shot from the front, but infinitely detailed. It works but only because the naturalism of setting and characterisation is so tightly framed—Hurt works from a set of recurrent expressions and gestures as the framing of the office space steadily narrows. The blue light from outside and the rain running down the window that give the room a richly hued gloom (pure Egoyan) are closed off by a lowered blind and Krapp successively turns off all but one of the lights in his room. Even more focussing is Egoyan’s restraint in editing. The first section of the play up until Krapp pushes the tapes off his desk is done in one glorious mobile shot. Edits thereafter are more frequent, but there are not many.

For performance and filmmaking acuity this was the best of the films. The balance between performed writing-for-the-stage and acting-for-film seemed just right against the theatricality of some of the other films. As did the steady intensification of Krapp’s regret as he listens to a former self get it all so wrong, even though we are denied most of the cosy clues of identification and sympathy that most theatre and film are still in love with. As Hurt, interviewed in the documentary, makes clear, it’s about empathy—you grow to understand and feel for Krapp, but you don’t have to like him. Hurt is of course a film and stage actor, Egoyan is a fine director of film actors, and Hurt was also directed by the late film director Karel Reisz in the production of Krapp’s Last Tape for the Gate Theatre prior to the making of the film.

Waiting for Godot

If you like your Godot warm, funny, finely nuanced and delivered with the lilting poetry of the Irish brogue, then this film is for you. Undisguisedly shot in a big sound studio (a former turkey factory apparently) and with a theatrical look, the lighting and set nonetheless convey the oppressive gloom of a dim twilight and an eerie night in what looks like an abandoned slate quarry. I enjoyed every moment of this film, reliving some of the anxieties and bewilderment I experienced when witnessing productions in the 1960s. I felt for the first time Vladimir’s desperation in Act II, telling the Boy to remember seeing himself and Estragon. I’d recalled the expression as resigned or confused, but here it hurt. For the most part though I did feel I was in a familiar place. The sheer strangeness, fright even, of my first sighting of the play had gone and director Michael Lindsay Hogg had not invented it anew. It seemed like it must have been a very short walk from the theatre to the soundstage for the actors.

Happy Days

Patricia I Heard the Mermaids Singing Rozema, on the other hand, went for a theatrical take on an actual desert location in her film of Happy Days. Winnie is buried up to her waist and then her neck in a very real Tenerife desert. It’s an awesome wasteland, sunny and beach-like at first glance, but, then the camera takes in the whole massive bowl of the landscape, a grim and forbidding place with no sign of life other than Winnie and the barely-there Willie from whom she craves response. Rosaleen Linehan as Winnie is an Irish performer who creates an obtuse, lyrical chatterer and conveys nonetheless a certain sensuality and a will to live. It’s a great performance on the big screen in a film with only a few, bracing shifts of shooting angle. Happy Days is a very effective if sometimes curious hybrid of the cinematic and the theatrical.

Some of the films feel artificial or stagey despite some hard work at transposition, others offer a refreshing surprise because they include some Beckett experienced for the first time, especially Rough for Theatre I and II. Both are shot in a luminescent black and white with fine actors. Rough for Theatre 1 (director Katie Mitchell), about 2 insurance assessors (Timothy Spall is superb as one) absurdly going over the moral scoresheet of a man poised on a window ledge as if about to suicide, has the kind of detail and gross humour you expect of some of Beckett’s peers from Theatre of the Absurd and even the likes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

Endgame: on film

Playwright Conor The Weir McPherson’s film of Endgame is marvellously acted by Michael Gambon as Hamm and David Thewlis as Clov, a finely balanced pair of opposites, equally powerful, trapped in a relationship of pragmatic and psychological dependency. Unlike Waiting for Godot, where you could imagine an Act 3 and an Act 4 in which things would be much the same, if a little worse each time, Endgame has the sense if not the evidence of irreversible change. By the end, Hamm’s parents Nag and Nell are dead in their rubbish bins, Clov’s desire to leave has been activated by spying life outside the house in the otherwise dead landscape (with its post-apocalypse suggestiveness), and even if he can’t leave (we never see him go) things cannot be the same. The film realises a dynamic between the 2 men on a performative borderline between naturalism and the grotesque, and with a driven sense of inevitability, even if irresolvable: a grim tension indeed. My complaint about the film is that, unlike Egoyan and Rozema, McPherson or his editor has an itchy finger compounded by his cinematographer offering us every conceivable angle on the room. The constant reverse field shooting of the taut dialogues between Hamm and Clov loses some of the play’s immediacy, while the editing and shooting otherwise sit too much on the side of conventional cinema for such a strange play. But nothing could spoil the performances.

Endgame: on stage

Benedict Andrew’s Endgame is surprisingly respectful. Things don’t seem that way as we are ushered into a tiny theatre within Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf 2, a black room with the textured walls of a tired bedsit, white sheets strung across the front of the tiny performing area and our individual seats seemingly selected from the less salubrious of secondhand shops. As a claustrophobic blackout gives way to dull light, the sheets/curtains are lowered to reveal Hamm, also sheeted, in his armchair. Clov enters, the wiry Matthew Whittet, physically a fine, nervy Clov, his gaunt face a blustery red, his wild hair requiring an occasional obsessive preening, his limp a rude impediment. He has also enough of the clown in him to sit comfortably in the Beckett universe—he’s playful (making a ghost of himself as he takes the sheet off Hamm), objects defeat him (the curtains on the 2 windows on the world) and he’s slow to learn (forever scraping his telescope across the wall as he aims at the window). Relative to Thewlis’ impatient, businesslike, eager-to-leave Clov in the film, Whittet’s Clov is slow, and so are the rhythms of Andrews’ production. That shouldn’t necessarily be a problem but becomes so when, almost as soon as they dialogue you sense that Hamm and Clov are out of sync, that the give and take and the gags are not going to happen, and that the vocal weight lies resolutely with Jacek Koman’s richly intoned Hamm. There’s a gasp from the audience when Hamm is first revealed: it’s the usual look, like a run-down Edwardian gent in his smoking room wearing his “stiff toque”, but we can see the blood running down his cheeks from his damaged eyes and there’s something that suggests, as someone nearby mutters, ‘Mullah.’ Koman almost sings his lines (Clov parodies his stretched vowels) and makes poetry of the speeches about blindness and about the artist-engraver who sees only ashes, not the loveliness of the world (a moment curiously almost lost by Gambon in the film). Whittet cannot match Koman nor ably pair him in their exchanges. As Herbert Blau insisted at the Sydney Town Hall event, Clov needs to be as strong in his own way as Hamm.

If Koman and Whittet are an oddly cast couple they are still conceivably from the same ailing planet. However, Peter Carroll and Lynne Murphy, as good as they are as Nag and Nell in their rubbish bins (if rather tame compared with their film counterparts), would seem to come from a different production, directed, I imagine, by Neil Armfield with Max Cullen as Hamm and Geoffrey Rush (if available) as Clov. If Andrew’s Endgame didn’t hold together, nor yield the bold directing we’ve come to expect of him, there was still much to savour: the appalling sense of a space at the end of time, the un-maudlin power of the poetry of the Absurd, and the clowning, conscious and not, that insinuates itself into the midst of incipient despair.

* * *

The relationship between stage plays and their film adaptations has long been an unhappy one. However, the set of filmed Beckett plays screened at the Sydney Festival and broadcast on SBS are more than substitutes for works we rarely get to see on stage. With varying degrees of success they are primarily filmic experiences, often showing how flexible Beckett’s writing can be and testing the inventiveness of filmmakers. It’s interesting to note that many of the directors are writers themselves, of stage plays or screenplays. The films also more often than not reveal how much room there is for interpretation without getting too far away from the wishes of the late, great man. But will it be 50 years before truly revelatory interpretations of Beckett bestride the stage, or the laptop or the playstation?

Beckett on Film, Sydney Festival, State Theatre, Jan 10-12; Samuel Beckett, Endgame, director Benedict Andrews, design Ralph Myers, lighting Nick Schlieper, costumes Fiona Crombie; Sydney Theatre Company, Sydney Festival, Wharf 2, opened Jan 2

RealTime issue #53 Feb-March 2003 pg. 17

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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