How Olwen Fouéré conquered Beckett’s memory challenge

The actor continues her performances of notoriously tricky Irish prose works with Beckett’s Lessness, which comprises 60 sentences apparently chosen at random

 

It was hardly the first time that Olwen Fouéré had been the object of scholarly fascination. She is the artist, after all, who co-founded one of Ireland’s earliest experimental theatre companies, Operating Theatre; a performer who has collaborated frequently (and pivotally) with playwright Marina Carr, choreographer Michael Keegan Dolan and director Selina Cartmell in the creation of startling new works; someone who can count Hamlet, Salomé and Paula Spencer among a score of roles that have legendary reverberations.

Even so, it must have been unusual to bring her celebrated production of Riverrun, a sensual and near-musical performance inspired by James Joyce’s famously inscrutable Finnegans Wake, to the pricked ears of Princeton University.

One Joycean academic, making a repeat visit, brought along his first-edition copy of the book and read from it while Fouéré performed, like a literary detective comparing earlier versions of a writer’s manuscripts. “He was very exited about having worked out where it came from,” Fouéré remembers, with characteristic enthusiasm, brightening at the memory of academic fandom.

Fouéré had kept her own literary gameplay to a minimum, following the voice of Annabelle Livia Plurabelle through Book IV, cutting liberally but still making room for outside allusions. One irruption from earlier in the book, “quaquaquaquaqua”, was grafted in as a reference to Lucky’s tormented speech in Beckett’s Waiting For Godot. “It was my little homage,” Fouéré smiles. “Also, it’s like a duck on the water: ‘quaquaqua’.”

It is the kind of fleet association typical of Fouéré, a performer who has long taken to the cerebral and the playful, like a quaquaqua to water. Now that she is continuing her performative explorations of notoriously tricky Irish prose works, with a performance of Samuel Beckett’s Lessness for her company the Emergency Room and Galway International Arts Festival, she may well receive further study. (“Anything that brings that great, ghostly galleon up from the deep,” to quote one of her academic admirers.)

Indelible association

Such is the indelible association between Joyce and Beckett that Fouéré had been approached to perform Riverrun at the Barbican’s International Beckett Season earlier this summer. Fouéré offered it Lessness instead, a piece that she had performed once before, in 2002, with Gare St Lazare Players, but that had resonated with her for much longer.

She first discovered a signature edition of the short piece, before becoming an actor, in 1970. “I took it off the shelf and I looked at it and thought, ‘I’m going to do something with this one day. I just know I am’,” she remembers.

A prose piece in two parts, constructed from 60 separate sentences that Beckett chose from a container, apparently at random, it is often analysed mathematically. “The two halves of Lessness are two of the 8.3 x 1,081 possible orderings,” write Elizabeth Drew and Maads Haar authoritatively. Such calculations might arise because other meanings in Lessness are harder to quantify. “Ruins true refuge long last towards which so many false time out of mind,” it begins. “All sides endlessness earth sky as one no sound no stir. Grey face two pale blue little body heart beating only upright.”

In 2002, Fouéré painstakingly committed Beckett’s fractured text to memory over a period of six months, learning, she says, “a stanza a week”. Knowing your lines is the minimal requirement of any actor, but those lines tend to follow cues, prompts and logical progression.

Take a random sample from Riverrun – “The spearspid of dawnfire totouches ain the tablestoane ath the centre of the great circle of the macroliths of Helusbelus . . . – and you realise it requires complete fluency in an abstruse language. To hold an audience requires a fluid grasp of underlying intention, something not even Joycean scholars have fully arrived at. (To have to say it with a Princeton professor keeping tabs sounds like a whole new form of anxiety dream.)

Fouéré has fascinatingly adept memory skills, which she finds hard to explain. “I think at a very early stage in my work I had to learn a massive amount of text,” she says. “I did a play by Sebastian Barry – which he never includes in his CV – called The Pentagonal Dream. It was written for five naked men and I played all of them. It was an hour and a half, stream of consciousness. I don’t know how I learned that. It took me eight weeks, I remember.”

For Riverrun, she says with some amusement and mild alarm, she never sat down to learn the text. “I don’t know what that is, except the language carves something in your consciousness, into your memory.”

That, however, may have been an obstacle with Lessness, which subsequently proved difficult to forget. “My original idea was to read it and be invisible,” she says. Where Riverrun had been roundly celebrated for Fouéré’s virtuosic performance, for Lessness she was inclined to disappear. “I didn’t want to interfere with it or to impose acting – in the worse sense – on it. I wanted to non-interpret it. I wanted to offer it.”

She had an image in her mind of someone translating a message from Morse code or a newsreader receiving a breaking story without time to process it: this just in. “I thought, how do you read it in a way that does not convey authority? Purely as a transmitter? I kind of had to unknow it.”

The solution, devised with co-director Kellie Hughes and designer Sarah Jane Shiels, was to record Fouéré speaking the text, in various ways, then feed her the text by headphones. “I hear it and I transmit it,” she says. In practice, it’s more complex, where a mesh of voices in her ears can be potentially confusing. It grants Fouéré a satisfying tension of words that ebb and flow.

“It becomes easier and more difficult, easier and more difficult. And eventually it sort of merges. It’s like a shadow. The recorded thing is the shadow and I’m the live body. After a time it starts to move in and out. I move from being a conduit for the words to somehow being in that space.”

Beckett’s work for theatre rarely affords his performers much leeway – famously reduced to a single mouth and a torrent of distraction in Not I; buried up to the waist, then the neck, in Happy Days; trapped in urns in Play; confined to a dustbin in Endgame. Fouéré is a much more collaborative artist, an equal partner, not somebody you imagine submitting automatically to authorial intention. Yet her experience of performing Beckett stretches back to the beginning of her career.

Her second ever performance was as Nell in Endgame, in 1976. “It’s remained my favourite play of all time. I adore Endgame. I lived it for so long. Lines of it come into my head often.”

Not long after, she gave the first performance of Not I in Ireland, she believes, in 1978, but was dismayed to see that the performance went uncredited, perhaps because the company never secured its performance rights. There have been others: Come and Go, Catastrophe . . .

“Jesus Christ: Play,” she groans. “With one week’s rehearsal. Crazy. I always remember the last performance.” It was in Lincoln Center in New York. “Stephen Brennan was in the urn beside me. And we turned to each other and went [she drops her voice to an aghast whisper] ‘Never again!’ ” Nonetheless, she would still love to perform in Happy Days, preferably in French.

”Simple as possible

Lessness, though, has been a suitably sparing undertaking, a deliberate eschewal of the

tour-de-force solo work with which Fouéré is increasingly associated. “I suppose I wanted it to be as simple as possible. A very simple experience. And actually, peculiarly untheatrical. For Lessness, what appealed to me was the landscape. When I first picked it up, I was thinking about becoming a painter or a sculptor. And it described an interior landscape that I recognised and yearned for, in many ways.”

Fouéré’s academic admirers might find intertextual, philological or even numerical points of contact between these works by Joyce and Beckett, but she is more animated by ambiguity than authority on the subject.

“I think they are related, but I couldn’t tell you how, other than that they both describe a landscape in some ways. They are connected to some sort of natural force. There’s a particular type of psychic space in them. It’s like a place or an element or a landscape, or communicating the state of consciousness, I suppose.”

She smiles again. “That’s the closest thing I could get.” Lessness is at An Taibhdhearc as part of Galway International Arts Festival from July 22nd to 26th. giaf.ie

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