Amy de Kanter, Chief Editor of ARTERI shares her thoughts on Theatrethreesixty‘s Bare Beckett which took place at Theatrethreesixty at Tommy Le Baker last week. Comprising four short plays by Samuel Beckett, the production marked the first Beckett staging in Kuala Lumpur in over nine years. Featured image by TKR Production!
For the first 15 or so minutes all is black except for one spot-lit square, no bigger than a playing card. In this space, substantially higher than where we know the stage to be, hovers a mouth. An expressive, red-lipped, white-tooth, pink-tongued mouth, floating in the darkness. I’d think it clever to compare it to a Cheshire Cat’s smile, but this mouth is human and never smiles. Nor does a body ever form around it. It just hangs there and talks.
The mouth’s words spill out clear and rapid as machine-gun fire, a stream of consciousness I can barely register because I’m transfixed by the way the mouth-parts contort to form words. At this speed, how is it possible that it’s not tripping over itself?
The audience only hears the mouth, but the mouth hears a voice we can’t and reacts to it, stopping abruptly to ask, “What?”. It listens for the answer. “Not that?”, it accepts the correction and plunges back into its rant.
In her ‘Notes from the Director’, Nicole-Ann Thomas writes: “Directing a Samuel Beckett play can be a harrowing, nerve wrecking, and fulfilling conundrum of an experience all at once. And that in itself makes me a happy camper”.
Such a happy camper, in fact, that she directs not one but four of the playwright’s shorter works in this extraordinary theatrethreesixty production titled Bare Beckett.
The first play is performed by the mouth in a piece called Not I. The voice is familiar. It lets out a sardonic “Hah!” and sometimes shouts with such power I should have realized earlier than I did that it’s the voice of singer and entertainer Tria Aziz.
For the first three plays, the Bare Beckett world is either pitch black or just damn dark. The darkness gives crispness to sounds, which mainly consist of speaking.
Then in the third piece, Footfalls character May’s (Grace Ng) footsteps as she paces back and forth, become part of her resigned monologue.
May cares for her aged mother (again Tria Aziz, this time completely off stage). Pacing is part of the never ending cycle of May’s days and nights, what she does between caring and chores. She walks slowly, as if in a trance. She stares out over the audience, calling to her mother: “Do you want me to dress your sores, pass you your bed pan, moisten your poor lips? Pray with you? Pray for you?”.
She keeps her arms wrapped around herself. In the beginning I think she’s merely cold, then that it’s like the pacing – a physical way of holding herself together. Or is this position her way of shelving her arms for convenience when they aren’t feeding, washing, rubbing, moisturizing or praying? Is that how she keeps them close and ready for when they are called to do the next inevitable task?
During the Q&A session after the show, both actors admit they struggled with the stillness their roles required. Tria had to keep her mouth in that small square of light. Grace ‘learned to walk’ for her role, her feet steering her otherwise immobile figure back and forth.
Back and forth and stillness featured strongly in the preceding play as well; Rockaby, where an old woman (Anitha Abdul Hamid) sits in a rocking chair. She listens to a disembodied voice (I later learn that this is Anitha’s voice as well), chanting more than talking. The old woman is familiar with the words and sometimes says a phrase along with it.
Like May, the old woman has a worn-out-by-life, haunted look about her. She listens, rocks and then the voice stops, the rocking stops (is the chair the source of the voice?) and I feel the slow horror of having just witnessed the moment a soul leaves its body.
But Beckett seems to abhor a relatively quick and clean resolution. The soul is still there, unwilling to part quite yet. “More,” the old woman croaks. The rocking and the voice resume.
There are parallels between that voice and the voice of a parent rocking her child to sleep. That soothing sing-song tone we use when we are not singing a particular song or telling a particular story. We’re unloading, simply talking, but using soothing tones to stop the baby fussing and close its eyes. Then, when we think that the baby has finally dropped off and we can put it down…“More”.
By the third or fourth time the woman fools us into thinking she’s dropped off (or died) the voice starts sounding frayed. Still, the woman wants “more” and the voice is now on the verge of tears. A few moments ago I was dismayed to think the old woman had died. Now I yearn, as perhaps the voice does, for that release. Not for the old woman, but for mine and the poor tired voice – the sound of an exhausted parent silently begging its baby “rest, so I can rest too.”
I no longer read about plays before going to see them. I delight in the surprise, in wondering what in the world (and in this case, WTF) is going on. I like the questions that arise within the mind. I greatly enjoyed the Q&A — I always do, but did not participate. My brain was powered by Intel, processing at nearly shut-down-and-reboot rates.
In a showcase that makes us strain our eyes to see through the dark, the last play is piercingly bright. Instead of one person occupying a small space, there are three people, two of whom walk around, and one, Christopher Ling, who actually throws the theatre entrance doors open, leaves and bellows his lines from the street outside.
This play, Catastrophe, is a startling contrast in other ways. For one, it has two male characters in addition to the female one we’ve learned to expect. One of the actors, Alvin Looi, was a strange peripheral presence in Not I. And once again, in a world marked by words, his role is silent.
It’s Alvin’s silence that speaks as loud as words. In Not I, the prattling mouth stopped completely a few times and our eyes adjusted to the darkness just enough to see him move. Facing the mouth, Alvin (as the Auditor) slowly raised his arms then lowered them again, as if calming her, helping her take a deep breath – perhaps through a nose as invisible as the ears that heard a voice we couldn’t.
In Catastrophe, his role is listed simply as the Protagonist. Alvin stands on a stool, cloaked in black, while a Director (Christopher Ling) instructs his Assistant (once again Anitha Abdul Hamid) on how the protagonist should be dressed, coloured and positioned. In the brightness, the audience is more comfortable laughing and we do it often.
The piece is hilarious and horrifying at once. Hilarious because of its commentary on three familiar roles in the performing arts. The Director is loud, impatient and every fibre seems to bemoan that he’s surrounded by idiots. His Assistant is a bundle of wide-eyed nerves (think of the chipmunk from Ice Age), pulling a notebook from her pocket and a pencil from behind her ear to write down all new instructions. When she has a question for her Director, she becomes a twitchy mess, shifting from foot to foot as if her bottom half were warming up to run for her life.
And horrifying because through it all, the Protagonist let’s himself be discussed and repositioned, his hat removed but his head kept down so we can see his face but not meet his eyes. What we do see is a head, bald but for stray clumps of hair. His cloak is also removed, revealing what the Assistant calls ash-coloured pajamas. In these clothes, the thin, scarred and shadowed Protagonist looks like a prisoner of Auschwitz.
During the Q&A, both the director and players said about Beckett that the more you read him, the more you discover. That would explain why I would have liked to see Bare Beckett again. And again and again.
Try to make it at least once.
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