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One had taken a weblog hiatus for several months, after six years of digital criticism-as-performance, one had closed the curtain. One took no bows, asked for no applause. One had a mind to extraction from the sphere of ‘theatre criticism’ entirely (one does not wish to get bogged down in reasons why).
And yet one cannot refuse an invitation unto Beckett.
Always Beckett what drags one back. Beckett where it all began, Beckett what defies the critical word.
One does not simply write criticism of Beckett. One simply absorbs and exhales.
And so, with some disclaim. This is not criticism. The purpose of The Fifth Wall was to bridge ideas (the work) and understanding (the audience). With Beckett, one might almost suggest the reverse dynamic is true. The audience is the work.
Rarely performed short-works by the modernist master, cheekily arranged with amusing (if silent) asides from the writer himself (one could almost describe this show as a retrospective).
It sets an absorbing tone to the evening, built from a repetitive rhythmic and movement exercise it captures the driven day-to-day futility so prevalent in Beckett’s writing. His major works (Godot/ Happy Days) are famous for their ‘nothing-to-be-done’ approach to universal ennui. But this one is what you might call “boiled-down”. No music-hall comedic charm to gild the existential lily with these, just the yearning chasm looking back at you, prettily.
As the four players engage in the dance, it hypnotises and leaves one alone with one’s thoughts. Whatever one had brought into the room becomes the subject of the play. So if you find it boring, that’s your deal. What I saw was beauty within futility within purpose within colour within nature within a shroud. You might see something else. That’s how Beckett rolls, so settle in and you’re in for a treat.
II COME AND GO
The most impenetrable of the works, made up of fewer than 130 words and iron-clad mixed-in-concrete stage-directions. Of the four works it predates the others by twenty years and as such one can say with confidence it is classic Beckett. We must see this to approach an understanding of all Beckett’s writing. We must perform it to know him better. The cyclic elements, the pointless secrecy, the familial and Shakespearean allusions all hallmark what more educated critics might preclude in Beckettian semiotics. Beckettesque? Beckettarian. Being less epistemic in one’s approach to dramatic form, one might call these people idiots. One does not simply use a made-up word to capture an entire system of dramaturgical thought.
This piece from the twilight of Beckett’s career is less ambiguously a direct closing of the loop between Birth and Death. Even the title links to sleep and the rocking chair motif extends across from infancy to the frailty of the very old. The structure, with discrete visual and aural elements enhances the discord one imagines Beckett is reaching to inhabit with the work. It draws on his wordsmithery in that stream-of-consciousness technique made famous by Lucky’s speech in Godot. But it is a severe error to assume the words are selected at random. The language of Beckett is steeped in linguistic pun. Words are chosen that may sound different in French and therefore set up unique meanings as one chooses to hear and interpret them. He uses the technique throughout his canon, as in-jokes, entendres and question marks. Not always easy to spot, but crucial to his dichotomy of symbols. It makes listening to what one critic might call “unremarkable” – into a fascinating game of words and images. Nothing is there by accident. Everything has its place.
One is reminded of an anecdote in which the two Irishmen Samuel Beckett and James Joyce happened upon each other. More likely Paris, but for the sake of imagery let’s say it was in some wintry pub in Dublin. Over a pint of Guinness, Joyce asks the younger man: “How many words did you write today?”
Beckett, grimacing: “Well. Not a bad day today. I managed seven.”
Joyce’s eyes light up: “That’s good, for you – seven. That’s very good.”
To which Beckett shrugs and says: “Trouble is though, I haven’t figured out what order to put them in yet.”
Never underestimate what Beckett is up to. Less is always Most.
IV CATASTROPHE (For Vaclav Havel)
The three words in the subtitle/ dedication for this work tell all. For the uninitiated, Vaclav Havel was a playwright in the former Czechoslovakia who was frequently kidnapped and tortured by the totalitarian government of the day (at the time of writing he was in prison for dissidence). He continued to write and became President after the fall of the Communist Party in 1989.
And so Beckett makes a powerful vignette about the artist vs visible power structures, not pulling any punches with parallels within the theatre context, as it represents the ongoing existential struggle of the individual prevalent in all his work. And for Sydney, Australia, here and now? It’s not quite Brandis 2015 but hey, not exactly far off, either.
Insofar as the Brandis Wars go, this production is crowdfunded excellence. The work is honest and true to the author’s vision. Straight-up and neat, a rare chance to see a 20th Century master in action. You may not see its like again. We suggest you go.
METAFOUR, By Samuel Beckett. Featuring Aslam Abdus-Samad, Bodelle de Ronde, Gideon Payten Griffiths, Pollyanna Nowicki, Sophie Littler and Victoria Griener. Directed by Erica Brennan, playing at PACT, Sydney until August 15th.
KEN Goodnight, Dulcie [exit]
RANDOLPH Now, where was I?
DULCIE upstairs, now will you join with us?
RANDOLPH come then – and quickly. But dance for me first-
[DULCIE dances for RANDOLPH, the CHORUS accompanying with movement and harmonies to PAN’s flute. The song and dancing reaches a frenzy before the night ends with everyone asleep in the bar. Enter GUIDO from upstairs.]
GUIDO I’m here to stay, no chance I’m leaving all this for that kid to take. He’s fragrant, that one. Less than the full deck. So they just hand over the keys and tell me to piss off west. Lay low? I don’t think that’s quite right. I got a stake in this too. I made plans in my time. Can’t leave that behind, so I’ve been creeping in between the walls, keeping eyes and ears on them that want what’s mine. There’s a secret spot in the roof I’m camped upstairs. No one knows I’m there. No one cares. Hiding out I listen deep and find out the secrets others keep.
[he takes off his hat at the bar, pours himself a drink]
Like this package I hear tell young Lionel’s retrieving from the wharves. I know what’s in it pure as driven snow- the powders we use to keep control, when things get too much. That stuff. I heard it’s s’posed to come through to Frank, but the old lady doesn’t know about it. Well what she doesn’t know won’t hurt her yet. That yank- seems to have lost his rocker, since the other night he talks no sense and walks around half-dressed. I can’t imagine he’ll report – if his package happens to miss its prompt delivery, eh? If it happens to go missing while I’m out of town – who’d catch the blame? I’m starving there up in my hidey-hole, ears pressed to the other side of the ceiling while my stomach growls. Now while it’s dark I can sneak past to find some crusty bread or off-soup. What’s this? The nightly till unkept. An omen? I should pocket it for my suffering. I should plant the seeds of doubt and theft. Too many times I held my tongue, now silence is all they might hear from Guido.
[He empties the till. SHARON wakes up and sees him in the act.]
GUIDO Fuck- oh fuck it’s you. Shh.
SHARON what are you doing here?
GUIDO don’t fuck’n say a word. I never left. Here – take this and give it out to the whores. And get me some proper food, leave it out on the upstairs balcony. You never saw me.
SHARON what’s all this?
GUIDO I got a plan. But I have to stay in hiding- where better than right under their noses? Trust me it’s the last place they’ll look. Just keep your trap – nice and tight. Right?
SHARON Guido when are you coming back?
GUIDO I’ll be listening in upstairs. You listen in down here. Alright love?
SHARON she wakes! Go- [exit GUIDO upstairs] … I know too much.
[SHARON hides the money. KAY wakes up.]
[PAN suddenly stops playing his pipe]
RANDOLPH There was a time when I might deliver wrath at such a claim. The stories have been told. But I was younger then. Now I know there is as much to learn from disbelief as any truth you can name. So I will talk, not punish. That night we met I marked you as a man of learning. As you witnessed my transformation I confess, this notebook came into my possession somehow. I return it to you now.
KEN my notes – why?
RANDOLPH that I might glance upon the type of mind that inhabits this earth. Since last I woke, things have changed
KEN I have gone mad trying to find this.
RANDOLPH it carries your many varied thoughts. These things which put form to truths some dare not speak. A poet, yes? Your words carry our stories too, strangely fashioned into your own. You carry the sacred blessing, Slessor.
KEN I can’t deny what I do not see, nor can I believe.
RANDOLPH and you cannot see the wind except for how it cuts through life. Mostly over your head I might think! It matters not. Once I would have been angry with this unbeliever – but all I can see is me. Standing before you-
KEN Even images are just tools – let’s say you’re speaking the truth. That body is just an expression of an idea- a reflection to project. God cannot exist outside our minds.
RANDOLPH Yes, an idea, I am just that – one of many, brought into flesh. One that persists without your knowing nods. In any case, knowledge is a vastly overrated practice. Old as I am, what else should I know of this upside down earth? Eh? It is much to fathom this world can shift so far in – how long have I slept?
PAN about two thousand years, sire.
RANDOLPH is that a lot?
PAN It is if you’re awake.
RANDOLPH but dreams strip away in a moment what seems like years of learning. I care not for wisdom suffered through sophistry and reason. A toast to foolishness! Hah!
PAN not all of them are able to hear us in the ways we are used to.
RANDOLPH how does he hear us then? How do you hear us?
KEN I’m not sure what you mean.
RANDOLPH Pah! Meaning is the stuff of philosophers’ futile raving, eh? You, poet have the gift of vision – but furiously reason against the muse. Something you may already feel pressed against you. enclosing your mind, wet, sharp and howling like the wind. But still.
KEN what is it you want to know exactly?
RANDOLPH I do not suffer wants, mortal, I dream, it becomes my will. Your choice is yet to come.
CHORUS You hear us now as you have heard us many nights. Reaching. For what? To embrace the unknowable. The imagined. Security in a truth that fits the world you do see?
RANDOLPH You may see the gods as mythical, friend – and you would be right to worship reason as gospel and here I stand tall against such unanswerable gains of science, but these steel machines you ride have no such power as Olympus once regained. And I ask you this one thing- may your answer be truer than the soundest bell-
[The women of the CHORUS are undressing him in a comely manner. RANDOLPH increasingly becomes distracted by them]
KEN ask me what?
RANDOLPH Ah – where was I?
PAN The question, sire-
KEN You were asking me a question-
RANDOLPH Well, let’s have it?
KEN Have what?
KEN I’m not following you.
RANDOLPH Good, good. For you must lead your own path.
KEN On that note- I’ll leave you to your riddles.
RANDOLPH it is so
KEN and thanks for my notebook. We can talk of this another day. Goodnight, Dulcie [exit]
[enter PAN & RANDOLPH, the CHORUS begins to surround him]
DULCIE My lord!
KATIE where is that fucker anyway?
RANDOLPH ahha! Sweet choral relief – surround me
KATIE no the other fucker – Len.
RANDOLPH come unto my girth
FRANK I got him working down at the wharf for a few nights.
KATIE what for?
PAN Your wine, sire.
FRANK I just need some eyes and ears. It’s no drama
KATIE better not be.
RANDOLPH dance with my desire. Touch the ring-
KATIE Just keep it tight. You. New girl, why you lingering over here?
RANDOLPH listen to the moonlight sing across the night.
KATIE Go with the others.
KAY No- I just heard you talking about Lionel.
FRANK what you want with him?
KAY Where is he?
FRANK He’ll be back, never you mind.
KATIE go on then. Find your friends. Watch that one. Questions don’t agree with this business. [KAY goes back] I get the sense she’s getting up above her station. Plus, she’s not been schooled in by Guido yet. Keep her close. Get Sharon across it. I don’t like you send out our barman on while the spick is out of town, but it’s good young Len is out of the way for now. Good kid, but soft, and not too bright. In future – just tell me when you start some private mission.
FRANK it’s an easy job- just a pick up.
KATIE I don’t need to know every top and tail. Just remember we’re in lockdown til the leather backs off on this murder case. Yeah?
FRANK not a problem
KATIE [referring to the chalkboard] that meant to be fuck’n funny?
FRANK it’s a play on words, i think.
KATIE I’m upstairs for the night. And I will take the bar tomorrow morning. Keep our guests happy will you?
FRANK ‘night Kate. [she goes up] Get some rest.
[FRANK gestures to SHARON among the group of women to join him, she does so and he whispers to her, she looks back over at KAY and smiles assent. FRANK returns behind the bar and pours a round. RANDOLPH dances with DULCIE to gentle music played by the CHORUS accompanying PAN. FRANK continues pouring drinks for himself and KEN, placing an amount of cocaine to share with the CHORUS, who move between their stations and the bar in a cycle syncopated with the dialogue. KEN and DULCIE refuse the drug but drink instead.]
RANDOLPH Where is my queen?
DULCIE Am I not she?
RANDOLPH I would not proceed without her by my seed. Too easily you wink- it carries no taste of triumph yet, I smell victory. A monarch’s scent is ripe, potent, poisonous – yours is sweet. Step back, it overpowers such a lasting trace. What leads upstairs to she who rules these streets?
DULCIE am I rejected?
RANDOLPH there are many at some high standing as yourself, of great esteem to those of poetry, perhaps. But would you challenge she? We have been close and still, I can never abandon you entirely, such is my way, to share! Now forgive, for I must attend.
DULCIE As you desire.
KEN wait a moment, I would ask you something. How can you lay claim to this? By what trick have you taken hold of these women’s will?
RANDOLPH my good man! You recall the hour on which we met, yes?
KEN and my friend Dulcie would hardly look upon you twice, then- yet here she’s at your feet.
RANDOLPH I was still weak, newborn into this slovenly sack of flesh. Not quite forgotten yet, and with belief comes our strength. My kind cannot abide doubt, you see. Even gods feel fear of becoming irrelevant…
KEN I can’t imagine why! For all your charm and likely dress- arrogance is still a human custom- you are not God.
[PAN suddenly stops playing his pipe]
LIONEL R- S- T?
FRANK No just don’t fuck it up. Now get.
LIONEL I’m gone- [exit]
FRANK good. You right for a drink?
KEN wouldn’t hurt me.
FRANK you’re down here a lot this last week.
KEN good a place as any to get out of the heat.
FRANK this fuck’n little turd. I told him to fix that board. What’s this supposed to be?
KEN that’s partly me, I’ve been teaching him letters. We use the board for practising.
FRANK He can’t read?
KEN he’s getting there.
FRANK Fuck me Jesus.
KEN I’ll fix it. [picks up the chalk and considers the board for a moment before settling on the word ‘cuisine’ writ underneath ‘hot’.]
FRANK I’ll take that as a compliment-
KEN stretch of the imagination.
[enter DULCIE through the main door. Her clothes are stricken with bits of native plant life]
DULCIE I return ahead of those that come before-
KEN what’s happened to you? Where have you been?
DULCIE we took into the mountains, where I have been taught the ancient ways, where I communed with an immortal-
KEN You know I don’t believe in-
DULCIE Should seeing be enough you will know this truth- to learn mysteries so inexplicable as these, Ken – you would do well to cease your doubts and follow.
KEN what mysteries?
DULCIE elaboration is forbid.
FRANK well this is all too fuck’n Greek to me, I’m going up to check our ladies’ progress. [he goes upstairs]
DULCIE I herald their return. You must learn as I have. Such things are not forgotten- quick pour some wine, I’m flushed. And more, we must prepare for the arrival. Any moment-
KEN what trick is this? Such men you speak that would have your service so quick, to submit is not in the style of your spirit, not the poet I know. Dulcie Deamer’s spirit’s free –
DULCIE irrepressible I know, and dancing on tables is just to show that squared off cities cannot contain my ways. Projections, devices, constructed personae to keep critics at my whim, to keep unwanted men from getting too far in. My wilder witty self could not bear the scrutiny of higher planes, of supernatural study such as I have not attained – until today.
KEN what is all this?
DULCIE the mystery of a woman’s soul is that she yearns for such release as only can be gained by another being’s control. I would run my own wilder ways and free, but just as a façade, my masks all slip away in the presence of a god.
KEN gods again? other planes-
DULCIE hush – their arrival is imminent.
KEN have a drink.
DULCIE any moment – sh!
[they wait. Enter KATIE through the main entrance.]
KATIE what’s all this? Where the fuck is everyone?
DULCIE they’re coming!
KATIE Frank! What’s going on down here? It’s six o’clock. [approaching the bar] You paying for those I hope-
[Enter FRANK from upstairs]
FRANK under control –
KATIE Where’s the barman? Where’s the girls?
FRANK Lenny’s on an errand for me, I’m covering.
KATIE don’t forget with the spic out of the picture we’re already short-handed
FRANK I’ve got it Kate.
[enter the CHORUS from upstairs]
KATIE should I even be asking this?
FRANK So it’s business as usual. Have a seat.
KATIE Don’t worry, I’ll do it myself.
[enter PAN & RANDOLPH, the CHORUS begins to surround him]
KEN How long have we been at this?
LIONEL I dunno – week or so.
KEN Where were we?
LIONEL You were just about to tell me about ‘silent’ letters.
KEN no, fuck that. Let’s revise. Vowels?
LIONEL vowels, right – ‘A’
KEN on the board.
[LIONEL uses the blackboard to write up his letters]
LIONEL A –E –I –O -U
LIONEL I remember those last three in particular
KEN yeah but the only thing you owe me is another drink for helping you out.
LIONEL pace yourself- still early you know
KEN ahh fuck yourself
LIONEL daily. For the road. I have to make a break for it in a minute. Help me with this can you? [he scrubs the blackboard clean]
KEN what do you want to say?
LIONEL just a sign for the counter lunch. Hot Food. Free grub, something like that.
KEN free grub? I think it sends out the wrong message. Keep it simple. Hot food.
LIONEL so how does that go?
KEN you tell me-
KEN sound it out
LIONEL Hhh- Ohh – T
KEN Hhh- right?
LIONEL Hhh- what’s that one again?
KEN Hhh – think
LIONEL [counts on his fingers] a-b-c-d-e-f-g- ache?
KEN this is painful- ‘H’
LIONEL ‘H’ – Ahah!
KEN now write it- then what?
LIONEL ache – Ohh
KEN ‘O’ – good
LIONEL Ache – Ohh – Tea
KEN right – ‘T’
LIONEL [writing] Ohh – Tea. Hot!
KEN second word.
LIONEL Food. Hm, ‘Ffff’ –
LIONEL ‘Ffff’- ‘oooo’
LIONEL Ffff – Fuck this is doing my head in!
KEN don’t give up now you’re almost there-
LIONEL I’ve got it! [writes] H-O-T F-O-D.
KEN Christ. Close enough
[enter FRANK from upstairs]
FRANK gentlemen – what’s all this?
LIONEL I’ve fixed the sign, Frank!
FRANK I’ll fuck’n fix you if you aren’t down at the wharves tonight looking for my package.
LIONEL Sorry boss – I’m just about to go
FRANK it took a lot of swag to get you in down there. So mind your P’s and Q’s
LIONEL R- S- T?
[LIONEL escorts CAPTAIN JONES through the back exit. KEN regards the letter for a beat, then speaks directly to the audience]
KEN This girl’s the sort – who’ll leave the window open but not the door. I don’t know how to tell this bastard how: he’s on a slow boat back to where he started. Not that it’s any of my business to poke around in. He’s the barman, I should be telling him my problems, not listening to his. As it happens, I got my own. Lost my notebook for start. I’ll come back and look for it again tomorrow. It’s a good place, this hole in the ground. Kings Cross and misfits still laughing. You know, it wouldn’t be so bad to lose – the city blazes with ideas every place I look. This book is just a few marked down shorthand so I don’t have to remember. Or was it so I can forget? Ah- doesn’t matter there’s plenty more where that came from, all up here – right? Bugger that. I can’t unblock a thing. Not since Joe – I need that book if I could just get at it- the verse might flow again
[pours another drink] I’ll come back and find it next week.
He drowned you know. It’s hard to lose a friend, worse when pain that will not end bars any words for expression. I blunt such edges night after next and the blades return still keen to sting – why, Joe? Did you have to cross the black harbour night? To leave me here– to leave for nowhere. Such a young and burning mind to fall into saltwater mouths. I’ll still come back and find you, I’ll not forget. I can’t write it yet. Can’t express. You drunken prick, Joe – to haunt me in this bar still. With that face. You keep the words you took and grin at me in the dark – I’ll look to some distraction in your stead. Fucker. [still drinking, he toasts the ringing bells off in the distance] So I come back, day-to-day and teach this kid his letters, read aloud so they might run into words and words into letters again. Some stranger combination of the things I forget. My sentence is I come back each day to turn away from my lost friend. And drown myself in spirit, to join you Joe – in spirit and follow what I can’t describe.
[enter LIONEL on this last phrase]
LIONEL what are you fuck’n on about?
KEN You find my notebook yet?
LIONEL it’s gone, Ken. I told you. You must have dropped it somewhere else.
KEN How long have we been at this?
LIONEL I dunno – week or so.