Cottesloe Theatre, London SE1
Opened 25 September, 2002

The estate of Samuel Beckett is notoriously protective of the great man's dramatic works, forbidding the slightest liberty to be taken with either dialogue or stage directions. This leaves his prose works relatively free as regards staging, encumbered only by one's own notions of what is or is not appropriately Beckettian. This is not necessarily a good thing.

Lessness tells of the disappointed husk of a man, half-petrified amid a desert literally or metaphorically, it makes no odds, least of all in Beckett. But this 1969 work is not a play but a prose poem, so the Gare St Lazare Players feel perfectly free to stage it with a woman on a dining-room table. In this production in the National Theatre's "Platforms" strand of peripheral events, Olwen Fouéré is barely visible in the dim light through the window shutters of the Ivanov set in the Cottesloe. Crouching in her long-trained gown, she at first seems a cross between Miss Havisham and that ruined lady's decayed wedding cake.

For most of the performance's 40-minute duration, Fouéré does not so much move as transition from one unexplained physical attitude to another until she makes a final, baffling, formal exit. Likewise, she largely recites the spiralling, repetitive text surely the very devil to memorise a few words at a time in the manner of Rockaby or a much-slowed Not I. But those pieces were written to be spoken in that manner, ready-divided into phrases. Lessness consists of unpunctuated sentences such as "Ruins true refuge long last towards which so many false time out of mind." It is written to be read internally as a series of prolonged, laterally associating exhalations, not delivered aloud as discrete shorter sighs.

Moreover, it lacks not only a narrative (a lack more unusual even for Beckett than one might assume) but an identifiable narrator to interact with the text and thus create the particular kind of drama with which he concerned himself. Fouéré, under the direction of Judy Hegarty-Lovett, is compelled to cast around for vocal as well as physical variations, then to try and tone them in with the author's usual modes of presentation, and almost to treat any sense of a through line as a bonus. But it isn't a bonus, it's an essential, and it just isn't here.

In his notes for the early novel Watt, Beckett wrote, "No symbol where none intended." Perhaps we ought also to consider a rule of thumb of "No staging where none intended." Maybe the estate could be persuaded to be more rigorous still.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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