In a luxuriantly black construction in the Samuel Beckett Theatre the other week, Aedín Cosgrove seemed to get lost in her own design.
Pan Pan, the internationally celebrated experimental theatre company she co-founded with director Gavin Quinn in 1991, was readying its new production of Samuel Beckett's radio play Cascando. An accomplished set and lighting designer, Cosgrove had imagined a maze-like space for the play, which depicts a fractured journey, where the audience move through eight-foot high corridors, enclosed by sheeny dark materials.
If a neolithic passage tomb had been recently refurbished as a nightclub, it might resemble this. “We can take a shortcut,” Cosgrove said.
Walking the route was a disorienting experience, where doorways only became apparent as we came upon them.
“I kind of think of the journey as through the labyrinth of the mind,” Cosgrove explained, pleased to find that her head-torch created a rippling lighting effect on the mirrored acrylic and black foil that lined the set. As we passed through another entrance, Cosgrove hesitated. “No, this isn’t a shortcut,” she said. In her Beckettian space of fathomless nothingness, we were actually taking the scenic route.
This seemed quite appropriate for Cascando, in which a single creative mind seems to split into separate entities: an Opener, who summons his thoughts through Voice (a separate character) and Music (composed in the original by Beckett's earnest collaborator Marcel Mihalovici). In a faltering collaboration, which can sometimes seem roughly spliced together, they tell the story of Woburn, a man who makes a collapsing journey under the cover of night, scrambling from his shed, across a beach, into a boat, and finally out into the sea beyond land. Diminishing and deceleration
The title, which Beckett also used for a much earlier poem, is a musical term denoting diminishing and deceleration: in short, an endpoint. The Opener seems to be in search of a story to end all stories and Voice begins in a related state of agitation: “story… if you could finish it… you could rest…”
That suggests a fascinating lens through which to see Beckett, who wrote of the play, in one self-effacing correspondence, “It is an unimportant work, but the best I have to offer. It does I suppose show in a way what passes for my mind and what passes for my work.”
We ascended to the upper level of the theatre, to look down on the set from above, and it wasn’t entirely fanciful to see in its folds and loops an image of a cerebellum: what passes for Beckett’s mind, maybe.
It had been constructed by Ian Thompson, for whom, Cosgrove chuckled guiltily, it had been a Beckettian experience, "because it was so repetitive and dark".
The same might be said for any designer of Beckett's plays, which can seem mercilessly precise on the page and rarely permit any embellishments. Pan Pan's previous responses to the radio plays All That Fall (first staged in 2011) and Embers (2013), found a universe of possibilities for bringing Beckett's work to the stage, without compromising his intentions.
Sitting in an extraordinarily transformed space, under a canopy of light bulbs, and tilting back on rocking chairs, audiences listened together to a pristine new recording of Beckett's existential mystery story All That Fall. A huge skull sculpture (made by the artist Andrew Clancy) dominated the stage of Embers, where Cosgrove's lights shimmered and swayed, animating the grimacing structure.
Cosgrove had never considered Beckett’s stage plays confining, though.
“The scenography is really inspiring because it’s perfect,” she says.
“Probably because he is writing everything, it ends up being like a poem.” The radio plays presented “a great opportunity to make visual these works”.
Her inspirations come firstly from clues in the text, tracing basic ideas such as where darkness and light are invoked, while considering "the mind space" of the plays. "He always has some comment on the light," she said, approvingly. "Act Without Words II is 'violently lit', whatever that means. In Embers, he talks a lot about light: "And mother peg, dying of darkness." There are constant references linking lights to remaining alive. When people talk about Beckett being grey, it's only true in that there is a space between where the light is, and where the light has almost gone."
While audiences listened to All That Fall and Embers together in a shared space, it was decided early on that Cascando required a more individual focus. Here Jimmy Eadie's new recording, featuring the voices of Daniel Reardon and Andrew Bennett and Eadie's own compositions, would be played directly to each audience member via earphones, each of whom would wear a hooded cloak, and move through the space in time to the play.
“You’ll be guided by the light,” said Cosgrove. “I personally don’t like feeling lost. You always move towards what you can see, if the light guides you gently.”
Like Pan Pan's other Beckett works, which tend to conceal the performers and prioritise design, Cascando again seemed to emphasise the performance given by set and lighting, often considered as supporting elements in Irish theatre. But Cosgrove felt that this happens anyway, and projects such as Irish Theatre Institute's Stage and Screen Design Ireland underlined a growing appreciation for the role of design.
“I think design should always be an equal player, obviously I do. Because I think designers really tried to make that happen.”
At the same time, she respected its transience; even this elaborate set would soon be struck, and there is very rarely any record of how light functions in performance.
“In one way I’m actually glad that I like things that are ephemeral, and that disappear,” she said. “If you haven’t seen the show, all the archive material in the world isn’t going to give you the experience. In some ways the great thing about theatre is that it only lives in the mind.”
The writer of Cascando would have been pleased to hear that.