Samuel Beckett's chair swivels with restless energy as he types, the keys clacking out a new communiqué for the French Resistance.
It is 1942, in the small apartment in Paris that he shares with Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil, his lover and future wife. Although Beckett is not yet the writer we know, whose bold experiments in form and figures would change the face of theatre forever, Paris under Nazi occupation already seems like a theatre of the absurd. “Listen to this,” Beckett tells Dechevaux-Dumesnil, whipping a fresh page from the rollers of the machine. “Did you know Jews are now forbidden to own bicycles?”
That Dechevaux-Dumesnil is dismayed is easy to see. “Poets shouldn’t play at being spies,” she tells him, dismayed by his insouciance.
“Of course we should,” Beckett responds. “We’re uniquely well qualified for the task. Condensing the world into lines that no one understands. I’ve been at it for years.”
You can see his point, even if you cannot see him. In Dead Centre’s eagerly awaited new production, Beckett’s Room, at the Gate Theatre as part of Dublin Theatre Festival, the swivelling chair is empty. There are no hands operating the typewriter. The page flies magically into the air, hovers there as the voice on our headphones reads its contents, and slips under the floorboards for safe-keeping. “Is there nothing in this house?” Dechevaux-Dumesnil complains, before a knife, that no-one holds, chops a carrot and turnip into slices. This is not such an easy question to answer.
Watching the action with the show's creators, writers and co-directors Bush Moukarzel and Ben Kidd and writer Mark O'Halloran, feels like witnessing something between a conjuring act and a weird dream. The set is an impressively faithful representation of Beckett's atelier on the Rue des Favorites, where the "siege in the room" of his compositions occurred, created by Dead Centre's regular collaborator Andrew Clancy.
Occasionally, someone appears from behind the set to reposition the typewriter, or disentangle a troublesome cooking pot from a kettle. When a bedsheet accidentally rises, as though caught on a tentpole, Moukarzel makes a corporeal joke that Beckett would have appreciated.
“This is the Zen rehearsal,” he assures the four unseen puppeteers, who, themselves, cannot currently see the stage. “The fact that you’re doing it at all is a miracle.” Moukarzel, as pain-staking, patient and good-humoured as a man directing a carving knife could be, seems causally Beckettian in every other utterance. “We’ll do lunch” he says, drawing the rehearsal to a break. “Then we’ll probably carry on.”
From gimmick to idea
One theme to which Dead Centre keeps returning, in the company's cerebral, playful and internationally celebrated work, is whether you can find the seeds of an artist's genius in their earliest expressions. It was there in Souvenir – and again in Chekhov's First Play, a staggering meditation on the art and life which debuted at the 2015 Dublin Theatre Festival and has since toured the world. (With Shakespeare's Last Play, a play commissioned by Berlin's renowned Shaubuhne, Moukarzel and Kidd took the reverse approach.)
Beckett's Room began with a similar idea: a staging of Beckett's forgotten first play, Eleutheria, which remains unpublished and unavailable for performance. With no reason to expect a dispensation from Beckett's estate, Moukarzel and Kidd began developing a project at the National Theatre in London. Finding little to salvage from the text – "A sort of Ionesco-ish chamber farce, popular at the time," says Moukarzel – they seized on the main character, Victor Krap (whose name Beckett would make room for elsewhere): "a character who didn't want to speak, didn't want to act and didn't want to be there, basically," says Moukarzel. What if he wasn't? Initially, this summoned to mind the early 90s goofs of the Chevy Chase film Memoirs of an Invisible Man, in which a pair of sunglasses might waggle above some magically chewed bubblegum. "But if you do it on stage it can pay dividends," reasons Moukarzel. "So that was the first step into representing this unrepresentability." The next step was to go one better. "Whether it was mad hubris or not," ventures Kidd, "we were like, let's do everyone invisible. It went from being a gimmick to being, hopefully, an idea."
Beckett, who famously confined characters to dustbins and urns, restricting others to mounds of earth or a single disembodied mouth, had a unique ability to push gimmicks towards greater ideas. He was also the master of absence. Like the title character of Waiting for Godot, or the elusiveness of any reducible meaning, your attention is drawn routinely to what is not there.
Rare amongst Dead Centre’s works, Beckett’s Room attempts to establish quite realistic parameters in both its staging and its story. “With the strange curiosity of him emerging from this extremely catastrophic moment of European history, then writing these dramas where he changes the rules, we thought, let’s just show the making of the playwright. It wasn’t so much Beckett’s First Play anymore, but the world that led to Beckett’s first play.”
O'Halloran, who concocted a firmly Beckettian monologue as "cameo playwright" on the company's breakthrough production Lippy, was brought on board to finesse the text. Or, as O'Halloran says, "To share the blame." It's a joke, but only just: putting words into famous mouths always comes with the frisson of trespass. Like their imagining of Shakespeare, in the extraordinary Hamnet, this version of Beckett, voiced by Brian Gleeson, is another good guess: a warmer, less taciturn embodiment (if that's the right word) than you might imagine.
Likewise, where they describe O’Halloran’s work on Lippy as “Becketting the text”, here his job was to “unBeckett” it – to deepen its characterisations and sharpen the voices as Beckett and Dechevaux-Dumesnil make their eventual flight from Paris, returning, after one personal calamity and the end of the war, to an identical apartment in a world that has changed utterly. O’Halloran resisted the idea that Beckett, an intensely private man, “would never say that” – “How do you know what he would say?” – while acknowledging the pitfalls of putting words in people’s mouths. “I’d never speak like this,” Beckett says at one point in the play. Touché.
Absence and presence
The more elusive voice, though, may belong to Dechevaux-Dumesnil. Nicholas Johnson, an assistant professor in Trinity College Dublin and this production's dramaturg, calls her "the void at the heart of Beckett studies". Here she is played by the French actress Barbara Probst, among a broadly international cast from France, Germany and Belgium, which includes Belgian actress Viviane De Muynck, a legend of the European stage, as their monstrous landlady, Madame Karl, a presumed Nazi collaborator.
“She’s such an important character,” Moukarzel says of Dechevaux-Dumesnil. “She was the one who was involved in political and left-wing circles in Paris. She had contacts with people involved in the resistance. Where our play ends, when Beckett starts to get his plays put on, she was everything but his literary agent. Giving her a voice is another part of why we were keen to write it.”
Given that it was Dechevaux-Dumesnil who described Beckett’s Nobel Prize as “a catastrophe” for the scrutiny it would bring them, she might not be in a rush to thank them. With witty glimmers of the plays to come, Beckett’s Room invites a biographical reading of Beckett’s output. That makes for a neat irony in the production. The more Beckett tries to disappear from his work, the more we try to spot him. As O’Halloran says, enthused by his first vision to rehearsals, “Your mind rushes in to complete the picture.” “
“He’s absent and present at all times in the work,” says O’Halloran.
“It was the worst disappearing trick in modernism,” agrees Moukarzel.
Are Beckett’s politics any more conspicuous? Much has been made through the years about whether or not he might be considered an artist engagé, if the “charnel house” horror of Godot alludes to the atrocities of the Holocaust, or if he retreated from direct reference.
Beckett’s Room presents the writer’s and Dechevaux-Dumesnil’s flight to Roussillon, sleeping in ditches and foraging for food, as the prototype for Godot’s Vladimir and Estragon, and its sustaining, fractious double-act. (Asked what Godot was about, the gnomic Beckett once responded, “Symbiosis”. That seems to be Dead Centre’s interpretation too. “Two is the magic number for Beckett,” says Moukarzel.)
Beckett, moreover, found a form capable of bearing the weight of experience of a shell-shocked world. In the play, Beckett’s friend, the painter Geer van Velde, laments, “People don’t look like that anymore,” of his own work. I wondered what new forms might be necessary to correspond with our own experience, hyper-informed and helpless in a world ever rushing towards collapse.
“A simple way in which theatre can be, and must always be, contemporary is because there’s a living audience right there and they have to be in the story somehow,” Moukarzel ventured. Beckett’s Room has its own approach, in the uncanny intimacy of a binaural recording delivered via headphones (a surround-sound technique Dead Centre put to great effect in Checkhov’s First Play) as well as other surprising devices: “How do you bring life into a lifeless place?” Moukarzel said of one amusing walk-on-role. “The chicken helps with that.”
As with Beckett, politics register discreetly in Dead Centre’s work, if at all, but they may becomes mistily apparent Beckett’s Room. “Why do we consider things that aren’t real?” Moukarzel wonders of the theatre. “We think Beckett’s response is that you have to act like you’ve seen something that you haven’t seen. So all the crises around the world now, which we don’t see directly – the refugee crisis, wars around the world, the climate catastrophe – you have to act as though you’ve seen. That’s where ethics and aesthetics join up.”
It’s a riddle that Beckett’s Room makes manifest, a “play without performers” that nonetheless makes a strong impression, a meditation on absences that seems so vividly present. Seeing, in other words, is believing.
Beckett's Room is at the Gate Theatre, as part of Dublin Theatre Festival, from Tuesday, September 24th, until Saturday, September 28th