John Clancy's company was possibly the most fêted on last year's Edinburgh Fringe; indeed, one of the awards was only properly presented to the American director on the London press night of Horse Country more than six months later. It's also particularly interesting to see that piece formally linked with the company's (separately ticketed) late show at the Riverside Studios, The Complete Lost Works of Samuel Beckett As Found In An Envelope (partially burned) In A Dustbin In Paris labeled "Never To Be Performed. Never. Ever. EVER! Or I'll Sue! I'LL SUE FROM THE GRAVE!!!"
The title of the Beckett parody leaves you in no doubt what you're in for, whereas C.J. Hopkins gives away nothing by titling his play Horse Country. But Bob and Sam, sitting at a cluttered table nowhere in particular, knocking back Jack Daniel's and chattering for 75 minutes about anything that comes into their heads, are close transatlantic cousins to Beckett's Didi and Gogo, albeit that this pair make no mention of any Godot that they're actually waiting for. And the tone of the conversation may owe more to David Mamet or American absurdist Christopher Durang, as they talk about performing seals, horse-breaking, the chairness of a chair, weighting random words to sound significant or coming out with meaningless banalities such as "Is this a great country or what? I mean, figuratively speaking." But at bottom Bob and Sam are doing exactly the same as Beckett's tramps: trying with a certain desperation to pass the time.
David Calvitto's Bob is the quieter, more thoughtful and more given to monologues of the two; Calvitto has a face at once so straight and so wry that even in repose his left eyebrow arches slightly higher than his right. Ben Schneider is more animated and occasionally even vocally frenzied, in contrast to the Beckett piece where his only formal line is "More..."
As Danny Thompson and Bill Coelius explain the significance of their Beckettian discoveries with breathless reverence, the man they refer to offhand as "Ben the actor" suffers several different kinds of novel purgatory in the staging. He holds up a two-legged table to support a talking brain in a glass jar; he listens incessantly to a track by David Gates and Bread; he is forced to Riverdance himself almost into oblivion.
Some of the titles of the "lost works" clearly have specific Beckett pieces in mind: "Not Me" takes place largely in complete blackout, punctuated first by a sepulchral voice stating the obvious, "Dark"; "Foot Falls Flatly" mingles the original Footfalls with the aforementioned Irish dancer. But the great skill of the piece is in combining a raft of particular Beckett references for the cognoscenti, from Happy Days to What Where and Rockaby, with enough general silliness to keep amused those spectators who know little more than that old Sam wasn't exactly Mr Chuckles. Even the supposedly six-year-old Beckett's first work, "Happy Happy Bunny Visits Sad Sad Owl" combines cuddly-toy puppetry with nods to Waiting For Godot, Endgame (the dustbin motif is used repeatedly) and, bizarrely, the song "Macarthur Park".
There's a fairly disposable subplot of receiving threats from a mysterious lawyer claiming to represent the notoriously protective Beckett estate. But real thought, both serious and joyous, has gone into the skits, and the pairing with Horse Country confirms that just getting to day's end can take a variety of routes but still testify to the same fundamental burden.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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