Waiting for Beckett with Irish in Focus


Samuel Beckett’s birthday will be celebrated on Friday with the world premiere of ‘Come and Go’, which has been translated into Irish by Gabriel Rosenstock as ‘Teacht agus Imeacht, writes CAOMHÁN KEANE

IN A LIBRARY in the University of Reading, as part of the Beckett Collection, there is a folder with the words “Mouth on fire” on it. Within it are the reviews and programme for a show from an Irish company bearing that same name, called Tyranny in Beckett, which was staged last November at Smock Alley Boys’ School.

In the two short years since it formed, Mouth on Fire has been included in the Beckett International Foundation’s archives as the first company in the world to stage the prose piece As the Story Was Told, and the first European company to transpose Rough For Radio II from its titled medium to the stage (although it was under strict instructions from the Beckett estate that the venue be as dark as possible). It will earn a further entry this week with the world premiere of Come and Go, as Gaeilge, continuing its stated desire to strike the balance between being innovative while adhering to the stringency of the writer and his estate.

Translated by Gabriel Rosenstock and starring Geraldine Plunkett, Teacht agus Imeacht opens in the Focus Theatre on Friday, Beckett’s birthday, as part of a presentation of some of his shorter works (previews begin tonight).

The project has been funded by Foras na Gaeilge and Dublin City Council as part of their drive to promote the Irish language through the arts. And in 2012 Mouth on Fire hopes to stage three of Beckett’s shorter plays this way. After Teacht agus Imeacht it will perform Rockaby for the Samuel Beckett Working Group in the Nuffield Theatre, Southampton, before returning home to stage both pieces, plus Rough for Theatre I, for Borradh Buan, a festival of Irish and bilingual events in the Axis in Ballymun each autumn.

“This a great and courageous undertaking,” said Ray Yeates, arts officer for Dublin City Council, at the launch of the project at the Foras na Gaeilge building on Merrion Square. “They will be surrounded by the English-speaking community who will have claimed Beckett as their own and who will constantly question why they are bothering to work through the language. But what people who work through English need to realise is that very important things happen in the arts that don’t happen in English. They happen in French. They happen in German. And they happen in Irish.”

Yeates believes what Mouth on Fire is doing harks back to the days of the Damer theatre, when great Spanish, Russian and even Shakespearean works were staged in the Irish language. “And let’s not forget, Beckett himself did not write in English. He wrote in French, as that was the language he was most connected to.”

Rosenstock is key to Mouth on Fire’s ambition to translate all Beckett’s short plays into Irish. “We made sure that we had someone of Gabriel’s stature when it came to the translations,” says Cathal Quinn, an actor and respected voice coach who formed Mouth on Fire in July 2010 with the actress Melissa Nolan. “He’s translated all sorts of Nobel laureates – Günter Grass, Rabindranath Tagore and Seamus Heaney to name a few – so we were delighted when he agreed to work with us.”

Rosenstock says: “Beckett is as strange and as familiar as the next job. But there’s a sparseness in his writing that reminds me of the beginning of Irish literature. Look at these four lines from an Early Irish lyric. Scél lem dúib/ dordaid dam,/ snigid gaim/ ró faith sam. Meyer translates that stanza as: My tidings for you/ the stag bells/ winter snows/ summer is gone. There is a texture, terseness and tonality here that are Beckettian. In this regard, he sounds more Irish to me than, say, Shaw.”

He believes that inward and outward translation are vital arteries in the corpus of any language. “It is a national disgrace that so little of Irish-language literature, ancient and new, is available in the major languages of the world. Translation brings disparate peoples and cultures together. New ideas and new sensibilities, new themes and new words are introduced to a language via translation.”

It’s particularly shameful given that the oldest Irish play, The Colloquy between Fintan and the Hawk of Achill, was written in Irish. “Would not Beckett have delighted in these splendid lines uttered by the bird: ‘I am the grey hawk of time. Alone in the middle of Achill.’”

Beckett, the writer, is both musician and mathematician, so precise are the rhythms of his text. Did Beckett’s work present any particular challenges? “In some ways, being a translator is like being an actor . . . an actor taking on the psyche, personality, angst, loves, hopes, and despair of different roles.” But he doesn’t over-think the act. “If you stay outside it, the translation will be mechanical. It must take the flame from the original fire to be a flame itself.”

How did a company with so little professional experience earn the trust of the renownedly picky Beckett estate? After all, Beckett, more than most, loathed his work being transposed from one medium to another, which is just what the company did with Rough For Radio II. “We had a letter of recommendation from Patrick Sutton, who had worked with Edward Beckett before [the playwright’s nephew]. So that helped,” says Quinn. “We offered to stage it a number of different ways in our initial communication. They asked us to do it in complete darkness. So all we had was a light on an old transistor radio to help create the mood. The audience was left to come up with the images themselves from the words, as Beckett intended.

“We’ve started to get our toe in the door and started to earn that trust, by setting out our stall, saying exactly how we were going to do something and doing it just so.”

So far the company has explored the plays through their thematic links, under headings such as Silence, Darkness, Humanity and Tyranny. Its most recent production explores the ephemerality of life and is titled Before Vanishing. As well as Come and Go, which will be performed back-to-back in both languages, English then Irish, it will stage Footfalls, That Time and Ohio Impromptu.

A company with a social conscience, Mouth on Fire has performed the shorter plays and prose of Beckett anywhere it can, so as to reach the people who might best identify with Beckett’s work. So far it has performed at the Electric Picnic, on the Beckett bridge, in the Simon Community’s homeless shelter on Usher’s Quay, Dublin, at the inner sanctum of the former Occupy Dame Street protesters camp outside the Central Bank, and on the grounds of two psychiatric hospitals, St Pat’s and St Edmundsbury, becoming the first group in 40 years to perform in the former.

“A lot of the patients said, ‘I saw myself up there’,” says Nolan. “Someone is identifying with how I feel. And that for me is Beckett. He lights up the dark. He shines a big torch on the taboo, the thing nobody wants to look at and makes us face, head-on, the realities of the human condition. And nowhere does he offer us a hopeful or conclusive message, rather a positive attitude in facing those realities with courage.”

“The feedback we got from the homeless was terrific,” says Quinn. “The minute Colm appeared on the box as the protagonist in Catastrophe, wearing just an overcoat and shivering, one turned to another and said, ‘the DTs’. Which is a way we never thought of looking at it.”

They are keen to follow in Jan Jönsson’s footsteps, to perform and workshop Beckett with prisoners. “I’ve written to the prisons 15 times now,” says Quinn, “and I’m getting a little closer every time. At the moment they don’t feel Beckett is working-class enough.”

Overcoming this esoteric notion that Beckett is boring is chief among the concerns for the company. “Beckett becomes alien to the general public if his work is not given light; performed, studied, spoken about, workshopped in all areas of economic class,” says Nolan. “His work is relative. We all come into the world exactly the same way and we will all die one day. That is what links us all together.”

Come and Go/Teacht agus Imeacht is at the Focus Theatre, Dublin until April 21st