Descent into the 'Beckett Bunker'

 

‘REMOVE THEM from the Beckett Bunker please, Anna,” calls director Gavin Quinn. It is a hot July day, which makes the windowless rooms of Dublin’s Asylum Studios seem like a cruel enough imprisonment. But the performers of Pan Pan Theatre Company’s intriguing new version of Samuel Beckett’s 1956 radio play, All That Fall, are entombed even further, standing around microphones in a small enclosure in the recording studio, assembled from partition walls and bookcases, topped off with a roof of blankets and generally resembling an elaborate children’s fortress.

If Beckett confined his stage actors to stifled positions – stooped over, buried to the waist, or held fast by dustbins and urns – here he restricted them to pure sound. Behind the glass of the control room, Quinn, his sound designer Jimmy Eadie and the dramaturg, Thomas Conway, listen intently to take after take of one scene, analysing its rhythms and the performers’ intonations (“Too diction-y,” went one note), engaging in quite detailed discussion about the blowing of a nose (“Too dainty.” “We could use a special effect?”) until finally finding the tone they desire. “Without any effort,” Quinn approves when the cast listened back. “You don’t feel you’re being acted at.”

Such attention to text and tone is important. Beckett, who never approached a medium without learning and exploding its rules, had precise ideas for his BBC debut. “Never thought about Radio play technique,” he wrote to a friend in 1956, “but in the dead of t’other night got a nice gruesome idea full of cartwheels and dragging feet and puffing and panting which may or may not lead to something.” It led to a number of things; not least a profusion of sound effects (“neighing hinny” “handkerchief loudly applied” “squawk of a hen getting run over”), but also one of the most detailed channellings of his “boyhood memories”. As the breathless 70-year-old Maddy Rooney encounters several villagers, tramping her way to Boghill railway station to collect her husband, the narrative wends towards a mystery story or a literary riddle, while the Foxrock of Beckett’s youth is mapped out as mistily as his worldview: a grimly funny persistence in a universe of suffering. Beckett was largely happy with the broadcast, with some reservations. “I didn’t think the animals were right.”

There are many things audiences have come to associate with Pan Pan – iconoclasm, infuriation, brilliance, fun – but textual reverence is not high among them. In the hands of Quinn and co-artistic director Aedín Cosgrove, Hamlethas become so stunningly self-aware that Pan Pan’s recent version, The Rehearsal: Playing the Dane, which won Best Production at the 2010 Irish TimesTheatre awards,included an onstage academic, an audition and a Great Dane; Macbeth has been rendered as part-classroom study, part-opera; Playboy of the Western Worldhas been performed by a Chinese company in Mandarin; and Hansel and Gretelhave wandered along a trail of paedophiles and internet cookies.

IF PAN PAN DOES not so much approach the canon as raid it, what would the notoriously prickly Beckett Estate make of its intentions? “It was interesting getting the rights,” says Quinn over lunch. “It was almost like copyright chess.” Quinn is disinclined to elaborate, but he assures me that his intentions are entirely honourable. “The Beckett Estate will be very suspicious if we are trying to make a new performance.”

For years, in fact, transposition from one medium to another has been the cardinal sin of the transgressive Beckett producer. (“Permission was granted for a straight reading,” Beckett wrote of the experimental New York company Mabou Mines, who staged his novella The Poor Oneswith a naked narrator and a landscape of miniature figurines. “Sounds like a crooked straight reading to me.”) But Pan Pan is staying faithful, perhaps obsessively so, to the letter of the text. This production’s innovation is to give it a new context, delivering it to an audience within a theatre, in “a listening chamber” designed by Cosgrove. Freed from the airwaves, they suggest, the radio play may acquire better reception.

“We’re recording Beckett’s radio text,” Quinn says cautiously, as though a Beckett Estate swat team might take him out at any moment, “and we’re playing it out loud to a group of people. The difference will be that the environment of the theatre will be altered to best work with the piece.” For Beckettologists, this seems like a fascinating grey area, neither transposition, adaptation nor installation, but an enticingly new approach.

Pan Pan works well with such ambiguities, routinely drawn to the most thoroughly-produced works of Shakespeare, Synge or Sophocles, while determined to find something startling new there.

“Beckett never wanted it to be a stage play,” Quinn continues, “but he did say he wanted the audience to be able to abandon themselves to it in the dark. With this environment you’ll understand Beckett’s concept of it being a ‘Skullscape’. Does Maddy Rooney actually exist? Are these just voices coming up from her mind?” Without a live performance, the audience become the sole physical presence – “They are actually making the place live: they’re creating the blood flow of the piece” – but Quinn agrees that there is a satisfying echo of Beckett’s existentialism in the presentation. We are alone in the universe, as we are in the theatre. Perversely, there’s something heartening in that position, which goes some way to explaining the comedy in Beckett. “A life of unending misery in a world devoid of God,” goes Pan Pan’s tagline. “Now that’s funny.”

“This play is very interesting in terms of Beckett’s pessimistic view of the world, because within it, there’s hope,” says Quinn. “The hope is the piece. Hope is the quality of the writing, hope is the story, hope is the execution of the work. From a personal view, I get so much out of it.”

A LIFE-LONG BECKETT fan – the first play he saw, as a teenager, was Waiting For Godotin the Focus Theatre in 1984 – this will be Quinn’s first Beckett production. While the company and the writer don’t immediately appear to be kindred spirits – one forever pushing boundaries while the other’s are rigidly policed – they share compelling traits. They are both arguably more acclaimed internationally than they are at home, formally daring and deeply divisive, while it is never entirely clear whether they are being playfully facetious or deathly serious. When asked by a French interviewer if he was English, Beckett famously replied, “Au contraire.” Those words could just as easily sum up Pan Pan.

Once All That Fallhad been written, Beckett himself fell into a deep depression, cancelling all his appointments for a week, unable to face the world. An otherwise vibrant and witty work, its words are laced with despair: “I was merely cursing, under my breath, God and man, under my breath, and the wet Saturday afternoon of my conception,” says one character.

When I meet Quinn again, he has been secluded in his own Beckett Bunker for three weeks, editing the recordings, absorbed in the linguistic philosophy of Fritz Mauthner and investigating the difference between “digital silence” and the radio’s dread of dead air.

I wonder what effect it was having on him. “Once you walk the streets after 10 hours of editing Beckett, you do look at the world slightly differently,” he admits. “You’re listening to people and looking at faces intently. Beckett looks at human isolation and from that little rivets of knowledge come out.”

Drawn into Pan Pan’s listening chamber, each audience member gets their own space to unpick Beckett’s mystery-story-cum-literary-riddle, and Quinn anticipates a performance that is both disembodied and free from distraction. “It’s a particularly intensified experience,” he says. “A deep reading of the play.” He corrects himself. “A deep listening . . . ”

Why the Time Lord has Beckett to thank for his tune

There is a story – sadly apocryphal – that before Beckett wrote All That Fall,he requested a list of the BBC’s sound effects and wrote a play to include them all. Actually, Beckett wouldn’t have liked what he found.

Anticipating the particular limitations and possibilities of a medium composed only of sound and silence, he wrote a journey guided by effects which, from his first direction, seemed at once natural and absurdly artificial: “Rural sounds. Sheep, bird, cow, cock, severally, then together.”

The BBC had hundreds of sound effects, but, averse to their realism, Beckett required something more stylised. Without the technology to adapt and estrange them for Beckett’s approach, the sound technician Desmond Briscoe and his gramophone operator, Norman Baines, invented new methods to treat the effects: slowing, speeding, cutting and fragmenting them. “These experiments, and the discoveries made as they evolved, led directly to the establishment of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop,” wrote critic Martin Esslin. “Beckett and All That Fallthus directly contributed to one of the most important technical advances in the art of radio.”

The Radiophonic Workshop, in turn, went on to create one of the most important innovations in electronic music with Ron Grainer’s theme music for Doctor Whoin 1963. This was before Robert Moog introduced the first commercially available synthesiser, so the Workshop created every note from similar Beckettian editing methods: taking analogue tape recordings of a single plucked string, cutting, splicing, speeding and slowing them to achieve different pitches. Oscillators, mainly used for calibrating broadcast equipment, were put to the service of music, their signals adjusted to supply melody and bass lines. A madly complex experiment of trial and error, its results put electronic music composition on a much firmer footing.

It isn’t something for which the Beckett Estate takes much credit but you can thank Sam, indirectly, for one of the most enduring theme tunes in television history as well as the assorted careers of Kraftwerk, Gary Numan and, um, Spandau Ballet.