Michael Gambon at the Gate: ‘The performance of a lifetime’

In two short plays at the Beckett Friel Pinter Festival, one brings us up close and personal with a great actor, while another finds romance in creativity

A performance of almost microscopic detail: Michael Gambon in  Samuel Beckett’s Eh, Joe

A performance of almost microscopic detail: Michael Gambon in Samuel Beckett’s Eh, Joe

 

Eh, Joe

*****

Gate Theatre, Dublin

In Beckett’s short television play Eh, Joe, here ingeniously and still faithfully transposed to the stage, the great actor Michael Gambon gives the performance of a lifetime, in more senses than one. First staged in 2006, for the Beckett Centenary, and now revived for the Gate’s Beckett Friel Pinter Festival, it asks Gambon to portray an entire personal history in just 30 minutes, and to do so wordlessly, while film-maker Atom Egoyan seizes on the actor’s long experience of stage and screen, artfully combining both mediums.

To see Gambon, sitting glum and inert on the edge of a stingy bed, you could be forgiven for thinking he is doing nothing at all, as a voice needles him into remembrance of things past. But to see his face, held steady by a stealthily advancing camera and projected on to a ghostly scrim at the front of the stage, is to see a performance of almost microscopic detail. The film actor knows that, on screen, the smallest gesture can carry a huge effect. The theatre actor understands that sometimes presence is enough. Here Gambon does both.

Penelope Wilton, who supplies the calmly interrogating voice, gives a performance that is harder to observe but no less nuanced, playing an ex-partner who has been absorbed into “that penny-farthing hell you call a mind”. There is nowhere to hide: we first see Gambon, a vulnerable figure in pyjamas, checking under the bed for threats.

There is a bracing correspondence between how these mechanical and live performances combine, and how Joe, an ageing man with a cruel history of absconding, is racked with recriminations under the unflinching gaze of the camera. “Anyone living love you now, Joe?” asks the voice. In Gambon’s engrossing performance, which has a spry command of his disarmingly drooping features, Joe resists and submits to the nudges of the voice, and the result is a fascinating paradox: this is a fugitive from intimacy, and you come to him intimately. The camera, too, recognises that it is engaged in a kind of torture. Joe is never ready for his close-up.

The Yalta Game

****

Gate Theatre, Dublin

In another short play, Brian Friel’s The Yalta Game, commissioned by the Gate in 2001, inner lives and outward appearances also begin to mingle, albeit more gently.

Inspired by Chekhov’s short story, The Lady with the Lapdog, Friel’s play finds another love-’em-and-leave-’em philanderer, Gurov (Declan Conlon, smooth-talking and dapper in Belle-Époque style), on retreat in Yalta, busily ascribing scandalous fictions to each passer-by – the game of the title. When Sophie Robinson’s ingenue Anna enters the picture, she is seduced into playing along, and while their love affair develops, along a seesaw of guilt and passion, the status of reality itself begins to warp between them.

Here director David Grindley knows that less allows more: Francis O’Connor leaves the stage bare, save for a couple of wooden parlour chairs and a burnished mirror backdrop, while Jason Taylor’s canopy of overhead light bulbs flickers with changing locations or, in one lovely moment, lights up with an idea.

That fits a staging where the creative conventions of the theatre are both invoked and disavowed. Anna’s merrily mimed dog, who we first take to be a real creature, later becomes a conspiracy between just them, like a shared secret. Likewise, is their affair another sustained performance, like Conlon’s grimacing farewell at a railway platform? Or, as life without this “conquest” becomes a flavourless dream, does it transform into the real thing?

In Friel’s étude, both characters share the narration, and they make the idea of falling in love with your own creation seem like a beguiling romance, while reality, with its harder edges, lurks like a quiet tragedy. As a drift of smoke hovers in the air, and the music begins to play, they seem to hover sweetly between heaven and earth.

– Runs until March 19th