Dead air

Beckett’s radio play Embers has been described as a “skullscape”. Can Pan Pan’s theatre version get that into our heads?



Samuel Beckett Theatre, Dublin


What do you look for in a radio play? It’s a question made more complicated by Samuel Beckett’s asceticism and rigorous attention to the specifics of form. Beckett’s dramatic works eliminate stage “noise” to invest every silence with meaning, and in his radio work, sound is the only reality, where the voices are transmitted directly inside our head, and silence becomes a more existential terror: the threat of dead air.

As he walks across a stony beach, accompanied by the sound of the sea, the first words spoken by Henry, the protagonist of Embers, suggest a place while exposing the conventions of the medium: “On” and “Stop”. Is this his internal monologue, willing an ageing man’s body onwards, or is he calling the sound cues? In Beckett, it’s usually both, and the absence of image keeps all meanings in play. Can Pan Pan’s new staging supply a visual focus without restricting meaning?

Although it’s appropriately stark, director Gavin Quinn’s second production of Beckett’s work seizes a few details from the play, its interpretation and its method, and makes them dominating focal points. The performer Andrew Bennett picks around a stage full of pebbles (Beckett’s shingle beach), before drawing back a veil to reveal the stage centrepiece: a wooden sculpture of a skull, four-metres high, grimacing tightly.

Those who consider Beckett to be a mordant fatalist may consider Andrew Clancy’s sculpture blunt, while scholars familiar with the interpretation of Embers’ subjective world as a “skullscape” may see it as an academic injoke. But, surrounded by a matrix of small hanging speakers (600 in total) that shimmer like sequin strips under Aedín Cosgrove’s shifting lights, it seems paradoxically animated: something living and dead.

That could double as a synopsis for the play, in which life and death are eternally opposed forces. With the marvellous dry drag of his voice, Bennett gives a portrait of the artist Henry as a frustrated misanthrope, remonstrating with his dead father, while tersely dismissing his own child, then gruffly conversing with his wife Ada (Áine Ní Mhuirí, her voice gentle and weathered), who may also be his deserting muse, as he traces torments, compulsions and his dying creativity along uncertain memories and abandoned stories.

Quinn’s work, no less than Beckett’s writing, is an exercise in strict control. Where we look, how we interpret, and the gentle ebb or uncomfortably loud spikes of Jimmy Eadie’s sound design are all rigorously calibrated. What cannot be regulated, still, is meaning; there to be grasped, sleuthed out or disputed. Yet, in a play with commands that border on synaesthesia (“hear the light”) you come away with haunting images, some seen, some imagined: the dying fire, the washing surf, that arid outline of a skull, the fascinating shape and sound of nothingness.

Until Aug 17, then King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, Aug 24 to 25