Close to the bone: getting into Beckett’s headspace
Pan Pan’s production for stage of a 1959 radio play continues the ‘deregulation’ of the Beckett industry
Andrew Clancy’s pale birch plywood skull, which stretches to four metres in height. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh
Andrew Bennett, one of two actors who occupy the skull in Pan Pan theatre company’s production of Embers. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh
Peering out through the slatted eye sockets of an enormous wooden skull, a visitor to Andrew Clancy’s studio could feel a strange sensation; the experience of momentarily getting inside someone else’s head. In a large warehouse near Dublin Port, Clancy is discussing his fascinating creation with Aedín Cosgrove (the co-artistic director of Pan Pan theatre company and its designer) before it departs for the Samuel Beckett Theatre, where it is the centrepiece of the company’s new production of Beckett’s 1959 radio play Embers.
Four metres in height from the base of its jaw to the top of its cranium, the skull is constructed from more than 200 ascending layers of pale birch plywood, each piece cut with a jigsaw and judged by Clancy’s eye (a small medical skull served as a guide). Up close, the skull is awe- instilling and slightly giddying (any less than four metres, Clancy explains, and its immensity would not register from a distance).
The layers give it a crenulated look, as though modelled from a glitchy Cat scan. But there is something more pleasingly contradictory about it: an iconic death’s head wrought from living material – the wood still smells fresh and sharp – and Clancy and Cosgrove speak about it affectionately. The first challenge was to avoid cliche, to make something that recalled neither a memento mori or a Megadeth T-shirt – and though it is barely finished, they have already begun to consider the skull’s retirement plans after Embers returns from the Beckett season at the Edinburgh International Festival. Could it be a garden sculpture? An installation in Connemara?
“You know something?” Clancy says brightly. “It would make a great tree house.”
One skull, two occupants
The skull has two occupants: Andrew Bennett, an actor blessed with the most riveting voice in Irish theatre, warm and gravelly, and the beautifully pitched Áine Ní Mhuirí, both of whom performed in Pan Pan’s first production of Beckett’s work, All That Fall, in 2011. Once again, director Gavin Quinn is introducing a play written for radio to a theatre space, and once again he seems to have found a fascinating legal grey area when it comes to transposing Beckett’s work from one medium to another – something that both Beckett and his notoriously litigious estate long discouraged.
All That Fall was a painstakingly recorded version of the play, as detailed as a musical composition in Jimmy Eadie’s fine sound design, and was delivered in an uncannily designed space of rocking chairs and light installations. It was lulling and hypnotic, harsh and startling.
Embers, though, is a live performance: concealed within the skull, its actors deliver their lines through microphones, their voices weaving into Eadie’s new sound design. Early on, Clancy had considered basing his sculpture on the architecture of Beckett’s own striking face, and it is tempting to look for the author in its features. To some extent, Pan Pan is doing something quite similar: introducing the audience into Beckett’s headspace.