As Samuel Beckett neared the end of his life, he dictated a poem to his trusted collaborator Barbara Bray. Originally written in French and titled Comment Dire, the poem grapples with the struggle to express oneself. Many interpret it as having been inspired by Beckett's aphasia, which left him temporarily unable to speak or write.
On the manuscript of the English translation of the poem, titled what is the word, he left a note reading, “Keep! For end”. It was his final poem.
The poem lends its name to a new show from Pan Pan Theatre. Billed as an audio cinematic experience, WHAT IS THE WORD presents a curated selection of Beckett’s poems, performed by some of Ireland’s most esteemed actors. Mixed and designed especially for cinemas, the recordings of the poems are accompanied by abstract light projections. The objective is to create an environment in which audiences can fully immerse themselves in Beckett’s poetry, many of which might not be well known to the general public.
“It has that function of allowing people to hear these poems . . . and giving people a chance to hear them in that environment, which is very clear and read by wonderful actors,” says Gavin Quinn, co-artistic director of Pan Pan.
While a cinema might not seem like a natural venue for Beckett’s poetry, it is very much in keeping with Pan Pan’s signature style. Over the years the company has staged a number of Beckett productions, often outside of the medium for which they were originally conceived. “We have worked with radio plays like Embers, All That Fall, Cascando,” says Quinn. “We’ve worked with Quad, his piece for television.”
Beckett may be known primarily for his work as a dramatist and novelist, but Quinn says he and his collaborators are long-time readers of his poetry and were drawn to the “intimacy” of his work. “They’re a mixture of quite beautiful narrative poems . . . and his later, more abstract work, which would be more associated with his minimalism and his need to express. Our idea was to curate a selection of these poems with a lot of different voices.”
The show is a collaboration between Quinn, Aedín Cosgrove, Ros Kavanagh, Jimmy Eadie and Nicholas Johnson, who began working on it about four years ago. After diving into Beckett's back catalogue, they selected the poems to be recorded by the likes of Olwen Fouéré, Andrew Bennett and Des Cave.
“Our idea was to curate a selection of these poems with a lot of different voices,” says Quinn. “In the end we use 11 voices, which we call speakers.”
From there, they set about trying to form a cohesive structure for the show.
“Over the years, we read and sat with the poems and we recorded them and lived with them,” says Quinn. “Then we tried to create . . . an architecture. Partly it’s instinctive, partly it’s musical placement, partly it’s about one voice following the other. It’s more like an arrangement, let’s say, rather than writing a narrative piece.
“Sometimes the poems are short, narrative sequences. Sometimes they’re more interior. You go on this journey, sometimes upstream, sometimes downstream.”
This process of sitting with the work and allowing it to reveal itself over time was a conscious choice. When the pandemic struck, they were afforded even more time to work on it and “to allow the environment in which we are living now to wash over it”.
The slow and deliberate pace suited this particular work, says Quinn.
“When you make work over a longer period of time, you discover things in the work and it discovers you. It allows you, in terms of your choice of the recording, the order, the arrangement and the way they’re treated . . . to let things come out of the ether a bit more, which is a very nice way to work if it’s possible to work in that way.
“It really allowed us to get into it, find the minimalism, find the wittiness of it, find the drama of it and really get into it on multiple levels in terms of what we hear and what we perceive.”
When it came to creating visuals to accompany the piece, they opted to create light projections using a cinema projector.
“The projector emanates light and colour, which then creates an environment in which you can hear the poems,” says Quinn. “You will experience a journey through colour and intensity of light.”
Quinn says that a lot of people have interesting ideas or impressions of Beckett’s work. He notes that a critic in the Dublin Magazine once wrote that he was “bewildered but impressed” by the writer’s output. But he posits that Beckett’s poetry is particularly apt for the times in which we find ourselves.
“Beckett is quite a good voice, I would imagine, in terms of the tone of pandemic,” he says. “Many of us who have worked on this have said that it’s been quite brilliant to hear the poems over and over again in this strange time we live in. It’s been strangely – maybe comforting is too strong a word – but it has certainly been very interesting to have your attention drawn to these poems and to investigate them in detail and to hear the actors say them over months and months.”
The show now lives on a hard drive that will be shuttled between cinemas once it begins touring. It is due to screen in Belfast and Paris in the coming weeks. Scheduled performances in the IFI as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival had to be postponed once Level 3 restrictions were introduced in Dublin.
Compared with other theatre makers, Quinn notes that they are fortunate to have a degree of flexibility with this work. “Because it’s finished before it goes into the venue, it means that if it does get cancelled, it does at least have an opportunity to travel elsewhere and to be kept alive and shown in different cinemas.”
The Dublin premiere of WHAT IS THE WORD has had to be postponed because of the three-week lockdown. So it will now premiere at Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris on October 13th, 2020, and will play at the Belfast International Arts Festival on October 29th, 2020