More is ‘Lessness’: why you should never try to find meaning in Beckett

TheEmergencyRoom’s production is about the Turing test . . . isn’t it?

Samuel Beckett's terse prose piece Lessness is an enigma, even by his inscrutable standards. "Ruins true refuge long last towards which so many false time out of mind," runs the opening line. "All sides endlessness earth sky as one no sound no stir. Grey face two pale blue little body heart beating only up right. Blacked out fallen open four walls over backwards true refuge issueless."

If I said it gets clearer as the lines mount up I'd be lying. Meaning here is fleeting, elusive and, one assumes, deliberate. But when I see the theatrical production of Lessness at Galway International Arts Festival the piece opens up for me like a well-cracked nut, in no small part thanks to Olwen Fouéré's electric performance.

As the audience enters An Taibhdhearc theatre Fouéré sits on a bare stage, behind a utilitarian desk. Her hands clasped, she stares out into the gloom with a focus that could cut through concrete. (Latecomers have to run the gauntlet of this look; Schadenfreude never seems so shivery.)

She wears a set of headphones via which her lines are fed to her. She recently told this newspaper, “The recorded thing is the shadow and I’m the live body. After a time it starts to move in and out. I move from being a conduit for the words to somehow being in that space.”


Behind her hums a flickering blue screen that pulses with eerie energy. The spartan stage feels chilly and bureaucratic.

Fouéré begins by delivering the lines in a near monotone. Her body barely moving, anchored to the desk by those clasped, leaden hands, out come the strange syllables with indecent precision. The effect is mesmeric.

Then, suddenly, there is a long pause. Fouéré is one of the most precisely physical performers in theatre; the tiniest movements take on much greater significance. Now she seems to deflate, shoulders rolling slightly, arching into herself, before allowing her body to come incrementally back to life. It feels like watching a lung inflate, or the quickening of a heart.

Out once again come the words, but this time energised and softer, with a sudden rush of humanity. Gone is the chilly narration; in comes a human witness. And that’s when my eureka moment strikes.

Directors and performers often overlay well-known texts with grander narratives and extra layers of meaning. Watching Lessness, I become convinced that Fouéré's character is performing a Turing test on itself. If you haven't seen the film Ex-Machina, in which computer geek Domhnall Gleeson grapples with robo chic Alicia Vikander, the test evaluates a machine's ability to display human characteristics. The idea is that an evaluator watches a robot talk to a human. If the evaluator cannot tell the machine from the human, then the machine has passed.

Fouéré’s performance is remarkable for all sorts of reasons, but, watching her unpick line after line, I decide that we are watching a machine have a Turing test with itself. Slowly, it gleans meaning from Beckett’s bewildering lines (which is more than most humans can manage) and attains a sort of consciousness.

The theory gets a little added spice in that mathematicians have been fascinated by Lessness since Beckett wrote it, in 1970. According to the academics Enoch Brater and Susan Brienza, Beckett wrote "each of the 60 sentences on a separate piece of paper, mixed them all in a container, and then drew them out in random order twice: the resulting sequence became the order of the 120 sentences." In the construction of those sentences Beckett was robotically rigorous. "The two halves of Lessness are two of the 8.3 x 1081 possible orderings of Beckett's 60 sentences," write Elizabeth Drew and Mads Haahr of Trinity College Dublin's schools of English and computer science respectively.

The best bit about my theory is that it's nonsense. The Galway/Emergency Room staging is conceived by Fouéré, Kellie Hughes, Sarah Jane Shiels and John Crudden. After the show its producer, Jen Coppinger, is decent enough to pretend that my theory is interesting and professional enough to say that it's certainly nothing like what they intended.

This, though, is one of the fascinating things about performances. Meanings, intentions and effects are as much in the hands of the performer as in the eye of the beholder. Everyone has their own theory about 2001: A Space Odyssey. Is that really Marsellus Wallace's soul in the briefcase in Pulp Fiction? And you can choose to accept or ignore the leaden religious allegory of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

“Whether we are aware of it or not, a function of our minds is to take in raw sensory input and discern patterns in it from which meaning can be derived,” Drew and Haahr write. But just because you’ve found a meaning, that doesn’t mean you should explain it to the producers.