Culture Shock: Two Samuel Beckett plays in a car park? Unmissable

The cast of Sarah Jane Scaife’s Dublin Fringe Festival productions of ‘Rough for Theatre I’ and ‘Act Without Words II’ are superb. They use the difficulties of the site to stage productions that are even better than Peter Brook’s

Street corner. Ruins: setting Rough for Theatre I almost literally on the streets creates some wonderful moments that could not happen in a theatre

Street corner. Ruins: setting Rough for Theatre I almost literally on the streets creates some wonderful moments that could not happen in a theatre

 

Theatre is seldom a particularly clear mirror of the surface realities that surround us. It has to be something else. Much of the best theatre in recent years looks for that something else in the very basic elements of the form: there are actors and there is a place in which we encounter them. Increasingly, that place doesn’t have to be a theatre.

Like any trend, site-specific theatre can be merely faddish. An out-of-the-way, unseen place has its own magnetism, and sometimes the use of such spaces generates a thrill that is really just a kind of tourism. At its best, though, there is a deep connection between what and where, between the content of what is being played out and the site in which it happens. Usually, this occurs because the work is bespoke, hand-made for a specific environment.

Sarah Jane Scaife’s productions of Samuel Beckett’s Rough for Theatre I and Act Without Words II for Company SJ and Barabbas at Dublin Fringe Festival obviously don’t have this advantage. Beckett didn’t write these pieces (in the late 1950s) with any nontheatre space in mind, let alone the one that Scaife uses: a bleak car park, open to the skies (and thus to the rain) beside Talbot Memorial Bridge, in the noisy city centre. Beckett, moreover, demands absolute precision from the performers and absolute concentration from the audience. Both are a lot easier in the controlled environment of a theatre.

It would be an admirable feat, therefore, just to pull off adequate performances of these plays in a car park. Here, Raymond Keane, Trevor Knight and Bryan Burroughs are not adequate. They’re quite superb. They don’t overcome the difficulties of the site. They use those difficulties to make what are certainly the best productions of the plays I’ve seen. (And that includes those by Peter Brook.)

The importance of the site and the way Scaife uses it is that it addresses one of the crucial dilemmas with contemporary Beckett productions. That problem can be summed up in a single word: context. Beckett’s plays have contexts: the second World War and the Holocaust, the threat of nuclear apocalypse, enslavement and oppression, real, observed human miseries. But their aesthetic depends on those contexts remaining almost entirely unstated. They work negatively: we apprehend them because they are almost (but, crucially, not completely) absent. Hence the challenge: leave out the contexts and the plays are arid. Put them in and the plays’ immense tact is overwhelmed and reduced to crude pieties.

The question Scaife asks is: what if we use place to provide the context? What if the physical setting defines the politics of the piece? The answer is that something very interesting happens then: the plays can function almost purely on an aesthetic level. They don’t need to be loaded with too much external meaning precisely because the place itself does that heavy lifting.

In this case the place is brilliantly chosen. It is a rough kind of car park, on a derelict site that used to be a warehouse. Traces of the old galvanised structure hang over the bricks and buddleia. It has the enriched emptiness of a former place, a site that once had an economic meaning. But it is overlooked on one side by the ugly Ulster Bank headquarters. The space above the front gate frames a section of the luridly lit IFSC. Scaife calls it “the contrasting architectures of social decay and financial power”, and this is exactly how it feels.

Within this space it is no great strain to think of the two male figures in each play (Keane and Knight in Rough for Theatre I, Keane and Burroughs in Act Without Words II) as homeless men. If you used this idea in a clean, warm, controlled theatre, it would seem forced and reductive. Here it feels natural. The audience shares something of the sense of raw exposure that the performers have to embody.

The idea is much more radical for Act than it is for Rough. Beckett, after all, sketches the setting for Rough as “Street corner. Ruins”, and one of the characters is explicitly a beggar. Setting it almost literally on the street adds a layer of realism but not one that is alien to Beckett’s conception. It also creates some wonderful moments that could not happen in a theatre. When the beggar pauses the action to listen to “all the sounds”, all the ambient noise of the city suddenly rushes into our consciousness.

Act Without Words II is more of a break with Beckett’s intentions. Scaife is careful to place it against a wall, so that it is as close as possible to the original stage directions. Even physically, though, the setting requires a reversal in the direction of the action. And the use of cardboard, sleeping bags (as opposed to Beckett’s “sacks”) and contemporary clothes makes homelessness a much more obvious theme than Beckett would have imagined.

Yet this realism doesn’t diminish the formal integrity of the performances. It is so obviously there that it doesn’t have to be underlined. Keane and Burroughs, with equally powerful but perfectly contrasted physical enactments, give full and memorable expression to Beckett’s wordless ballet of absurd persistence.

The plays are vividly and immediately rooted in a place, but the triumph is that they are not at all confined to it.

fotoole@irishtimes.com

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