Breaking the rules on Beckett, to fantastic effect

The playwright would have been deeply unhappy about Pan Pan’s production of Embers – part of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival – but it’s an intense, imaginative, mesmerising experience

It is striking that many (perhaps most) of the best Irish productions of Samuel Beckett in recent years have been violations of Beckett’s intentions. He wrote in many forms – poetry, fiction, theatre, cinema, television and radio – and was adamant that there were good reasons why a particular piece was in one mode rather than another. There are few more punctilious writers, and there was nothing casual or contingent about those choices.

And yet just look at the mini festival-within-a-festival of six Irish Beckett productions at Edinburgh at the end of this month: the Gate's I'll Go On, Eh Joe, and First Love; and Pan Pan's All That Fall, Quad and Embers.

What the six shows have in common is not just that Beckett wrote them but that he wrote them for other media: I'll Go On and First Love are drawn from his prose writings, Eh Joe and Quad are television plays and Embers and All That Fall are radio plays.

And to this list we could add Barry McGovern's stage version of Watt and Conor Lovett's extraordinary presentations of the prose trilogy as high points of recent Irish explorations of Beckett.


It's all wrong and yet it's more than all right. Most of this work is terrific, and Gavin Quinn's new version of Embers for Pan Pan (which finishes its short pre-Edinburgh run at the Samuel Beckett Theatre in Dublin tonight) is no exception. But it goes much further than Quinn's rightly acclaimed production of All That Fall in taking the text beyond the auditory experience it was intended to be.

There is little doubt that Beckett would have been very unhappy about it. In 1960 Robert Farren, the controller of programmes at Radio Éireann, whom Beckett liked, asked him if he could stage Embers at the Abbey. Beckett declined.

It's easy to see why. Embers, written largely for the Irish voice of Jack McGowran and produced by the BBC in 1959, is much more of a pure radio piece than All That Fall. That earlier play has the sense of a "real" location (Foxrock railway station) and of external action. Embers seems to unfold entirely inside the head of its primary voice, Henry, a sour middle-aged man who summons up the sound effects he wants and then the other voices he wishes to hear: those of his wife, Ada, and, briefly, of his daughter, Addie, and her music and riding teachers.

Sound and silence (the play has 238 pauses) are everything. Even the jokes are radio jokes: near the start Henry tells us, “That sound you hear is the sea. (Pause. Louder.) I say that sound you hear is the sea, we are sitting on the strand. (Pause.) I mention it because the sound is so strange, so unlike the sound of the sea, that if you didn’t see what it was you wouldn’t know what it was.” (The joke being, of course, that we’re not seeing the sea at all but know very well what it is.)

Not that the play is pure form. It seems, like Krapp's Last Tape, which Beckett wrote just afterwards, to contain fragments of memory. There are echoes of his father (often recalled as a swimmer in Beckett's work) and in particular of his father's disappointment at Beckett's pursuit of an apparently negligible literary career (Henry, like Krapp, is a failed writer): "You wouldn't know me now, you'd be sorry you ever had me, but you were that already, a washout, that's the last I heard from you, a washout. (Pause. Imitating father's voice.) 'Are you coming for a dip?' 'No.' 'Come on, come on.' 'No.' Glare, stump to door, turn, glare. 'A washout, that's all you are, a washout!' "

It also seems to recall Beckett’s dread of living by the sea, when he moved to Greystones with his mother. (“It moans in one’s dreams at night.”) Henry wants to get away from the sea: “Where it couldn’t get at me! The Pampas!”

These fragments of memory don't amount to a coherent, realistic scenario, however. They are placed in a dense soundscape that seems to reflect, if anything, Beckett's love of music: Embers is perhaps best thought of as the nearest he got to a musical composition. It plays, moreover, with the idea of being alone in the dark with voices that may or may not be real. All of which argues strongly in favour of leaving it as a pure experience of sound.

And yet the thing works. Quinn goes quite far (much further than with All That Fall) in giving it a physical embodiment: we see the actors on stage before the play begins, crunching on seashore pebbles.

The idea of play that takes place inside Henry’s skull is made entirely literal: Andrew Bennett and Áine Ní Mhuirí, who play Henry and Ada, enter a giant sculptural skull, designed by Andrew Clancy. They can be glimpsed dimly through the slatted eyes.

This literalism should be flat, but it isn’t. The sheer rigorous intensity created by Quinn’s fusion of the wonderfully spoken voices, Aedín Clancy’s fluid, streamlike lighting and Jimmy Eadie’s remarkable sound design is mesmerising.

Perhaps there's a sense of freedom in staging these nontheatrical texts that allows theatremakers to inhabit Beckett's imagination without being withered by its ferocity.