A lone mouth, outlined in scarlet, takes centrestage in a pitch-black room. It rambles on stream-of-consciousness — often interrupted by its own thoughts — as it tells the tale of a curious woman, of her epiphanies and a buzzing in her skull.
After a disconcerting ten minutes or so, the stage blacks out completely. The mouth has been replaced by a dimly-lit old woman in her rocking chair, her eyes staring ahead as her thoughts emanate through the black box. By this point, a sense of looping has established itself across Bare Beckett, a compilation of four short plays by celebrated absurdist Samuel Beckett.
And when National Arts Award recipient Christopher Ling appears in a fur jacket smoking a cigarillo and barking orders at his nervous yet determined assistant, those less accustomed to the works of Beckett will probably find the entire thing rather puzzling.
What does it all mean, and how does it even begin to relate to Malaysian audiences?
“Does it have to?” retorts Bare Beckett director and Theatrethreesixty co-founder Nicole-Ann Thomas.
“I don’t believe that stage plays must relate to any specific type of audience or country. Beckett’s work for instance delves into the human condition — his writing simply taps into the essence of being human.”
Her 60-minute staging features four of Beckett’s short plays, namely “Not I”, “Rockaby”, “Footfalls” and “Catastrophe”. Those unfamiliar with Beckett can expect to be surprised by his unique writing style and oft-bleak themes.
“People grab hold on certain lines and words based on their experiences; most viewers tend to hook onto different things. I personally think these works are relatable to everyone, any audience of any age.”
But by going to the very core of what makes us human, Beckett also gets away with culling traditional elements like conventional plot and linear time.
“In his plays, audiences are only given to see and hear what they absolutely need,” continues Nicole-Ann, expounding upon the playwright’s minimalist nature. “In “Footfalls” for example, the girl must hear the sound of her own footsteps to keep sane, and you see that in the lighting Beckett requests in the text.”
The results are startling, distilling much within pared down scenes, and even earning its author the 1969 Nobel Prize in Literature. Nicole-Ann attests to the transformative nature of Beckett’s work but she insists its not easy.
“First and foremost, you have to understand why these pieces are written and why it’s done in such a specific way. And he’s very, very specific with his text.”
Actor Anitha Abdul Hamid, who stars in “Rockaby” and “Catastrophe”, noted this characteristic during a post-show question and answer session. Recalling her preparation process in the latter short, Anitha was adamant about honouring the original text.
“There’s almost as much stage directions as there are lines,” she claimed, “I had to be careful; he specifically tells us the exact sequence my character draws out her pen and notepad each time.”
But with so much of the text dictating what happens on stage, how much leeway can a director actually get with a Beckett play?
“I add nuances by affecting how my actors approached the text,” explained Nicole-Ann, who then put together transitions between each short play.
“My initial idea was also to come up with a women of Beckett compilation but I didn’t have enough material to choose from, and neither did I want to change any character’s gender because that involves requesting permission from the estate.”
Like the rest of her peers in Bare Beckett — Tria Aziz, Grace Ng, Alvin Looi and Christopher — Anitha reveled in the experience. Not strange considering the production marks the first notable local staging of Beckett’s writings in almost nine years, presenting a rare challenge for local actors.
Prior to Theatrethreesixty‘s Bare Beckett, Electric Beckett took place at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre in June 2007, featuring “Krapp’s Last Tape” and “Eh Joe”.
This occassion however marks Nicole-Ann’s return to the director’s chair for the first time since 2014’s Pack/Unpack, a physical theatre piece choreographed with Ostella Adam. Choosing these four short plays to challenge herself and her actors, she hopes to see more people exposed to the works of Beckett.
“Locally, we don’t have specialists in Beckett’s writing,” Nicole-Ann tells us. “A lack of people who know how to handle his text probably contribute to why you don’t get his work in town as often. I mean, I myself was shitting bricks when I realised I was doing this.”
After three months of preparation, the production opened on Thursday to a full house. Beckett’s writing however polarised audience members, resulting in a fair share of confused and restless viewers, at least two of whom had to be shushed during the performance.
“But that’s all fine,” insisted Nicole-Ann. “I’d be more worried if they walked out of the theatre feeling indifferent. At the very least it made these people feel something.”
As the major draw of this year’s edition of annual arts festival We Are Theatrethreesixty, Bare Beckett marks the official opening of the company’s new performance space at Tommy Le Baker, Sentul. The production will run until this Sunday.
We are theatrethreesixty 2016 runs from 12 – 15 May 2016 at Theatrethreesixty at Tommy Le Baker, A-1-5, Viva Residency, Jalan Sultan Azlan Shah, 51200 Kuala Lumpur. Tickets to all performances can be obtained via Tixipro, but make sure to check Facebook for more details. All photos in this post by TKR Production!