The picturesque village of Méricourt stands high above a great loop of the River Seine, an hour northwest of Paris and a short distance from Claude Monet’s house and gardens at Giverny. It is the home base of Gare St Lazare Ireland, the acclaimed Irish theatre company run by the actor Conor Lovett and the director Judy Hegarty Lovett.
Following the example of Samuel Beckett, whose works form the cornerstone of their extensive touring programme, the couple, who have known each other since their teenage years in Cork, relocated to France at the turn of the millennium. In the intervening years they have not only raised three children but also built up a repertoire of 20 Beckett titles, together with plays by Michael Harding and Will Eno.
They are about to embark on a new project that will be launched at the Irish Embassy in Paris this week, attended by Edward Beckett, the writer’s nephew, who is executor of the Beckett estate. The event will feature performances and readings from Beckett’s works by Lovett, Adrian Dunbar and Ciarán Hinds, who has also lived in Paris for many years and, with Edward Beckett, is the project’s patron.
Atelier Samuel Beckett is an artist-led residency occupying a beautifully renovated old house a few steps downhill from the Lovetts’ own home. In the golden light of an autumn evening, the Seine threads a silvery course through thickly wooded hillsides and chalk ravines. The two houses face south, looking over the same magnificent panorama – and sharing the same creative outlook.
Artists of all disciplines will be offered the opportunity to spend time at the residency in order to reflect on, research and develop projects. They will have access to the house’s extensive reference library and can also avail of mentoring sessions with these two leading exponents of Beckett’s work. As this writer can attest, the pair are naturally generous in sharing their expertise with other theatre-makers, as well as in encouraging young artists.
“Conor and I came to this village in France in 2000,” says Judy. “We were very fortunate to have been offered a beautiful home to stay in by a lovely American couple, who remain close friends. During that time we built a body of work that sustains us to this day, that we still tour internationally and are very proud of. Méricourt provided us with that opportunity.
“When we received a transformative gift from other American donors, we said we would like to give back what we had been so happy to receive all those years ago – the gift of time and space to create work. The Atelier exists to do just that.”
Conor takes up the story. “It all came together at the right time and for the right reasons. These people had seen our work on tour. They’d even travelled from the United States for performances. They liked what we did and said they’d be keen to get behind it. They subsequently put in place some funding which would come down to the company annually over a period of several years. It was an amazing gift, because it enabled us to plan ahead and provided some stability, which we had never experienced before.
“They were offering separate support for our idea of an artists’ residency, just at the time that the house in front of us came up for sale. Our donors made it possible for us to acquire the house and renovate it. So there was a crazy but very beautiful synchronicity about it all.”
Atelier Samuel Beckett – the name is best translated as Samuel Beckett Studio – is, as far as the couple know, the first building in France to be dedicated to the writer. Their ultimate ambition is to see it become a centre of excellence for Beckett studies and practice. The idea seems entirely appropriate, given the echoes between their own life path and that of the man whose artistic vision guides their work. “Beckett had a second home in Ussy-sur-Marne, outside Paris, a village not dissimilar to this,” says Conor. “That’s where he did his writing.
“The Atelier is very much an evolution, a progression out of Gare St Lazare’s work. Over the years many collaborators, artists and academics have come to Méricourt to visit us, to work with us, to interview Judy, find out about our work, attend rehearsals and workshops ... that sort of thing. So this is a formalising of all that, in a very fortuitous kind of a way. It has Gare St Lazare Ireland written all over it.”
The company is keen to receive applications from international artists working in a variety of creative disciplines. Galway Culture Company, in partnership with the University of Galway and Gare St Lazare Ireland, is supporting the first two bursaries, one for a Galway county artist and one for a Galway city artist. The recipients are Petal Pilley, artistic director of Blue Teapot Theatre Company, which specialises in working with actors with intellectual disabilities, and the Galway-based writer and poet Claire-Louise Bennett.
“We don’t expect anyone to deliver anything at the end of the three-week residency, so there’s no presentational value to this. It really is about artists spending time on their work,” says Judy. “But we do hope that they will surround themselves or engage on some level with Beckett’s writing during their time here.
“We’re interested in promoting Beckett’s legacy across the art forms. I am from a visual-arts background and trained at the Crawford College of Art. I approach Beckett through a visual lens. It’s interesting to us that many people who engage with Beckett’s writing have come from a background in the visual arts or music or dance, finding their way into the theatre through different disciplines. But it’s not surprising, as his work is very visual, very musical and contains a lot of movement – or stillness or restriction.”
As well as getting the Atelier up and running, Gare St Lazare Ireland is focused on two big performance projects for 2024.
A multifaceted collaboration of writings by Beckett, Dante, Hermann Melville and Hildegard von Bingen, the 11th-century German Benedictine abbess, writer, composer, philosopher, mystic and visionary, will integrate music by the Dublin-based composer Benedict Schlepper-Connolly and the singer Michelle O’Rourke. Its premiere is scheduled for next autumn.
“The important thing about this and previous works like Here All Night and How It Is, which we worked on over an eight-year period, is that we have expanded way beyond the solo performance and into much bigger collaborations, combining Beckett’s writing with significant amounts of music and singing,” says Judy.
In May rehearsals begin on Three Catastrophic Plays. The trio comprises Catastrophe, which Beckett wrote for Václav Havel during the former Czech president’s imprisonment; Mistake, Havel’s response to Catastrophe, which he wrote after his release from prison; and Muzzled, by the Iranian playwright Reza Shirmarz. Index on Censorship, the international organisation that campaigns for freedom of expression, and Art for Human Rights (formerly Art for Amnesty) approached Gare St Lazare Ireland with a request to produce all three plays. Index on Censorship commissioned Shirmarz to write Muzzled in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of Catastrophe. The three will tour together in June and July 2024, visiting Prague, Paris, London, Los Angeles, New York and, they hope, Avignon, where Catastrophe premiered in 1982.
It’s a brilliant return gift to Ireland to be bringing the voice and culture of Ireland into other countries
“It’s quite daunting, very exciting but a wonderful opportunity for us,” says Judy. “In the case of Muzzled, which has not been produced before, it will be the first time that we have engaged with writers at risk.”
The couple warmly acknowledge the backing of Culture Ireland, the Government body that supports Irish artists travelling abroad and has enabled them to build a global following for their work.
“It’s because of the consistent touring, year in year out, that you build relationships and a wider audience,” says Judy. “It’s a brilliant return gift to Ireland to be bringing the voice and culture of Ireland into other countries. Beckett has international reach and name recognition. People all over the world know him and travel to see his works. He’s right up there with Picasso and Beethoven. And he brings in audiences from far and wide to Ireland, which is very much what Gare St Lazare Ireland is all about.”