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Samuel Beckett's famous novel nobody heard of

Conor Lovett and partner Judy Hegarty will bring two Beckett shows to Irish audiences

Conor Lovett perches at the edge of the Everyman Theatre stage, his fragile silhouette appearing, then disappearing as beams of light, clouds of mist and strange, dislocated snatches of sound pool and pulse around him.   It's a rehearsal for Gare St Lazare's world premiere of Samuel Beckett's novel How It Is, and Lovett looks every inch the archetypal Beckett hero – a lonely figure struggling against the obliterating dark.

But the solitude is illusory.  Working away in the shadows, ducking and diving under an array of cables and computer screens,  are lighting engineer Kris Stone and sound designer Mel Mercier.  Observing and overseeing the entire operation is visual designer Judy Hegarty. The English actor Stephen Dillane, familiar to viewers of the Sky Atlantic TV crime drama The Tunnel, and appearing on the big screen this month in the Winston Churchill biopic Darkest Hour, is away filming something very glamorous but will also be joining Lovett on stage in Cork.

For Lovett and Hegarty, partners in life as well as in the Gare St Lazare company, this level of collaboration is becoming a habit.  In the past the pair have worked with various musicians as well as such actors as Olwen Fouéré and Michael Harding – usually one at a time.

However, 2018 will see them bring not one, but two Beckett shows to Irish audiences.  And with its interweaving of texts and music by Beckett, Brian O'Doherty's art installation Hello Sam, a score from English composer Paul Clark, improvised fiddle by Caoimhin O'Raghallaigh, solo soprano Melanie Pappenheim and a chorus of six female singers from across the US, their ensemble piece Here All Night is a veritable Beckett: The Musical.


To read it is one thing. To approach it for the stage is quite another

Originally made at the Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris, Here All Night has been ecstatically received on subsequent outings in Brighton, London, Boston and New York – one critic called it "Beckett with his hair down".  Gare St Lazare will be bringing the show to the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in April, followed by a nationwide tour.

How It Is, though, is more of a hair-shirt affair. If you've never heard of this novel – narrated by a man crawling through the mud and dark with a bag of tins containing food around his neck – you're not alone.

"Very, very few people know of it. Of all Beckett's pieces it's the least written about and the least focused on, even by academics," says Hegarty, who has been captivated by Beckett since the first time she went to the theatre. As a teenager, Waiting for Godot was the first play she saw, in a production at the now-defunct Ivernia Theatre on Cork's Grand Parade.

She has waited 15 years to stage How It Is, which she regards as a masterpiece. "I think you'd want to have been with Beckett for a few dates before you went with this one," she says. "To read it is one thing. To approach it for the stage is quite another.  Having been in the world of Beckett for the past 20 years, as we have, it's kind of like you earn your credits by the time you get to this one.  Hopefully."

Despite the novel’s fragmentary, unpunctuated text – or perhaps because of it – Hegarty was determined that music would be central to the production. “Somehow, because of the disembodied voice, I felt that that needed a support system and a landscape to live in – not necessarily an identifiable one,” she says. When she and Lovett had about an hour’s worth of text ready, they invited the composer Mel Mercier to the vaulted stone bunker outside their home in Paris which they use as a studio, to see how he’d react.

“After the performance Mel said that the ambient sounds of birdsong, the breeze in the trees coming through the window, and the crackling of the wood stove seemed to work perfectly with the text,” Lovett recalls. “That confirmed for us that he was the right person for the job.”

Back at the Everyman in Cork, where Gare St Lazare have been developing the play as part of a three-year residency, the ambient sounds of the city – and of rehearsals themselves – have made their way into Mercier’s musical soundscape.

Birdsong, maybe, not so much. But Mercier’s approach dovetails effortlessly with that of Hegarty and Lovett, for whom 20 years of working with Beckett has taught them not to stride in and impose meaning, but to stand back, wait, and let the texts speak for themselves.

“You listen a lot,” says Lovett. “It’s hard to describe, but like, I might be talking to someone about a piece of the text. They might say, ‘Gosh, what does he mean there? That’s a strong statement’. And I’ll say, ‘Ah, no, he’s only joking there’. And they’ll say,  ‘How do you know?’  And I’m like, ‘I don’t know how I know’.”  He pauses. “And I could be wrong,”  he concludes, with his wry grin.

The person who just likes to see a bit of comedy gets so much from Beckett

He could.  Then again, there must be few people on earth who have been as intimate with Beckett’s own words as Lovett, whose feats of memory in terms of performing these texts on stage are quite extraordinary.  Does the fact that he has learned so many help or hinder him when he sets out to memorise a new one?  “They’re all hard,” he says, “in that you just have to put in the time.”

“Which,” notes Hegarty, “is every day, three hours a day.”  Lovett nods. “I find in the mornings, things go in easier,” he says. “And Beckett is hugely playful in this text.  He really is. Out of nowhere there’ll be a list where there’s really no need for a list. ‘Better than yesterday less ugly less stupid less wretched less cruel less old less . . .’ So a list of adjectives, I suppose; but rhythmically, that ‘less’ is doing an awful lot of work.  And ‘stupid’, you know. ‘Stupid?’ He doesn’t use that word much. So when these things jump out, it’s strong.”

Strong is also the word for reactions to Beckett’s work, I suggest.

Nobody says, ‘Oh, Beckett: I could take or leave Beckett’.  “Actually, some people do,” Lovett says.  After 20 years of bringing Beckett all over the world – not just to Anglophone countries but to Romania, Bulgaria and elsewhere – Hegarty and Lovett have had just about every kind post-performance conversations with audience members that you could imagine.

"Beckett works on so many levels," says Lovett. "The person who just likes to see a bit of comedy gets so much from Beckett. For the person who likes a mystery thriller there's Molloy, Malone Dies.  He plays with the person who likes to philosophise. He's got this incredible undercurrent of emotion – and it's something we all identify with because it's ultimately about people, and their mothers and fathers and brothers and husbands and sisters."

“I think it has less to do with Beckett specifically than it has to do with ‘The Greats’,” says Hegarty. “You might as well be talking about Mozart or Picasso. It’s less about what you can do for Beckett, but what Beckett can do for you.”

At this stage, do Hegarty and Lovett even know how many Beckett titles they’ve staged?  “Seventeen,” is Hegarty’s prompt reply.  “And . . . we’re going on.”  She laughs.  “We ain’t stopping there.”

Having wowed audience both here and in the US with their Beckett Trilogy, which played at Lincoln Centre in New York last autumn – 17 years after it made its first appearance at Kilkenny Arts Festival – they're embarking on a new trilogy, of which the Cork production of How It Is is just the first part.

“We intend to go right to the end,” Hegarty says.  “We’re looking towards 2020 for completion of the full novel. Word for word. Not a word missing.”

Even the master himself would surely approve of that.

  • 'How It Is' opens at the Everyman Theatre, Cork, on February 1st.  Here All Night is at The Abbey from April 11th to 14th, then tours to  the Town Hall Theatre Galway, Siamsa Tire Tralee, Everyman Cork, Pavilion Dun Laoghaire, Lime Tree Theatre Limerick and the National Opera House, Wexford.