THE JACK STUDIO, located at the back of a pub in Brockley, South London, is the place to come if you want to immerse yourself in the short plays of Samuel Beckett. You may not leave as refreshed as some of the pub’s regulars (remember the Heineken advert: ‘refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach?’) but you will spend the next two days and nights dissecting what you have experienced. Weird, wonderful and wacky Beckett at its best.
Last year, under the astute direction of Beckett aficionado John Patterson (what he doesn’t know about Beckett can be written on the back of a 70p postage stamp) the Jack Studio gave a double Beckett helping in one audacious go: Play and Footfalls. To read our review.
Play involved three individuals immersed in separate urns and then proceeding to spout forth whenever a light shone on them. Disjointed, perturbing, but perversely all rather captivating. Footfalls involved a woman shuffling back and forth on a wooden board – nine steps one way, nine steps the other – while her mother looked on. Transfixing.
This time around, Patterson has come up with a Beckett triple decker – Not 1, Catastrophe and Rockaby. And again, like Play and Footfalls, it will stretch your concentration levels to the limit, leave you somewhat confused and baffled, and at times frustrate you. But it will get the grey cells working overtime. One hour in the theatre, four hours in bed contemplating the meaning of what you have witnessed.
The Beckett sandwich that Patterson has assembled is cleverly constructed and brilliantly acted.
First, in Not I, we see nothing but a pair of seductive red lips and gleaming teeth peering out of a hole six feet up in the air – Beckett insisted it always should be eight feet off the ground, but his estate (usually insistent about Beckett’s plays being performed to the letter of Beckett’s law) allows some smaller theatres a little leeway. The lips and teeth belong to Samantha Kamras who unbeknown to the audience is perched on a ladder behind the black cloth from which her mouth appears.
From her mouth pour out a torrent of words, interspersed with long pauses and much cackling. Floods of words. Machine gun fire like. At times, incomprehensible, but detailing (I think) key moments from an elderly woman’s life. Sixteen minutes of mesmerising theatre. Just you and the mouth lit by a single beam.
The other outer layer of the triple sandwich is Rockaby – an elderly woman (Anna Bonnett) who emerges from under a blanket on stage and proceeds to rock rhythmically away in her rocking chair while in the background, her voice (recorded) tells of key moments from her life and that of her mother’s. Occasionally, the woman in the chair mutters a few words. She withers before our very eyes (a tear slowly meandering its way down her right cheek) until she is no more. Entrancing.
Sandwiched in between is Catastrophe – the more penetrable of the three plays. Here, an arrogant and demanding director (Stephen Donald), wearing a fur coat and smoking a cigarillo, instructs his assistant (Joanna Clarke) to make adjustments to a man (the ‘protagonist’, Louis Fox) who is standing on a plinth, still as a mill pond – tall, frail and looking rather emaciated.
The director demands that his assistant partially undress the protagonist, unclench his hands and make a note to whiten all exposed flesh. It’s all rather disturbing, although it is the protagonist who makes the final gesture.
A night then for Beckett lovers (and lovers of challenging theatre), topped off with Patterson and the cast staying behind to talk about the three plays. ‘Beckett gives you a black and white picture and the audience colours it in,’ said Patterson. I’m still colouring in – and will be for quite a while.
Not I, Catastrophe and Rockaby is a triumph for Patterson, his talented Angel Theatre Company and Jack Studio. Four Beckett plays surely beckon next year.