Footfalls and phonecalls – An Irishman’s Diary about a night at the National Concert Hall

   “The words of Beckett poured forth from a spot-lit Lisa Dwan into a void of blackness and quiet (except for the usual epidemic of coughing that made the place sound like a sanitorium).” Photograph: Eric Luke

“The words of Beckett poured forth from a spot-lit Lisa Dwan into a void of blackness and quiet (except for the usual epidemic of coughing that made the place sound like a sanitorium).” Photograph: Eric Luke

 

On Wednesday night, not for the first time, I found myself outflanked by Fintan O’Toole. Speaking as MC at an event in the National Concert Hall, he mentioned he had recently finished reading War and Peace. And just to rub it in, he hinted at some embarrassment that it had taken him until now.

As readers may recall, I myself have made two attempts on Tolstoy’s epic, but both times found it a metaphor for the Russian winter and had to retreat half way, like Napoleon and the Germans. I had since more or less given up on it.  Now Fintan has shamed me into thinking I should try again.

He only mentioned the subject, apparently, because we had just heard the music of John Field (played superbly by Barry Douglas and Camarata Ireland) which, as he reminded us, features in Tolstoy’s masterpiece.

I say “reminded us”, but in fact I had to look up the reference afterwards. And there it is, in book 7, chapter 10, where Countess Rostova asks Herr Dimmler, the music teacher, to “please play my favourite nocturne by Monsieur Field”.

It’s no surprise that the Irish composer (1782 -1837) should have merited mention. He spent many years in St Petersburg – long enough to become known as the “Russian Field”.

Whether I crossed that particular pastureland during my attempted invasion of Tolstoy, however, I can’t remember. It’s roughly midway, so I may have. But by then the plot was receding before me and they were burning the crops. Severely weakened, I could no longer concentrate.

Maybe next time, having read the first half twice, I won’t start from page one. Instead, I’ll parachute into the Russian Field and plough on from there.

The Wednesday show was part of the NCH’s own epic – the seven-concert series Imagining Home, a response to 1916 that started on Monday with an American-themed event and finishes Sunday with a night of traditional music.

This instalment, presented by O’Toole, was about Ireland in Europe, or more especially about how the emerging Republic was fated to take its place among the nations during the Continent’s darkest decades.

In a way, the programme ranged from Dimmler to Himmler, via Eliot’s Waste Land, Samuel Beckett’s plays, and a sub-plot on the tragedy of Roger Casement. By way of light relief at the end, the Camarata orchestra returned to perform Krzysztof Penderecki’s extraordinary Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima.

As Myles na gCopaleen might have said of the show, there weren’t many laughs.  But it was never less than riveting.

Speaking of light, if not relief, the two Beckett plays required the auditorium to be cast into complete darkness. Profound silence was also needed, so that before the first piece, O’Toole pointedly repeated the routine request that we turn our phones off.

Naturally, like most people, I had cheated earlier by switching mine to silent. But I took his hint, as others did, and now fully extinguished it.  

Thus, the words of Beckett poured forth from a spot-lit Lisa Dwan into a void of blackness and quiet (except for the usual epidemic of coughing that made the place sound like a sanitorium). 

And this continued through – first – Not I, and then Footfalls. In the latter, as a character called “May” (Beckett’s mother’s name), Dwan paces to and fro on a flood-lit strip of stage, while mentally replaying some unspecified crisis of her past, over and over.

Even by Beckett’s standards, it’s bleak, as well as beautiful. But what, if anything, it means may have been a mystery even to him. He was typically both very precise in his stage directions, while unable to elucidate more fundamental questions asked by actors and directors.  

So we don’t know if May is alive, or a ghost, or if the frail mother outside whose sick room she is walking, is dying, or dead, or ever existed other than in May’s imagination.  

The best clue, via Beckett’s biographers, is his interest in abnormal psychology, and in particular a patient he once heard Carl Jung speak about, whose problem, Jung suggested, was that she had “never really been born”. 

Anyway, as the play reached its climax on the night, I sensed an impending epiphany. Then, inevitably, and despite the earlier warnings, a phone rang somewhere. 

In fairness to its eejit owner, he or she might have silenced it quicker but for the Stygian gloom. By the time it was found and strangled, however, the moment had gone. As with War and Peace, I may have to visit Footfalls again.