For a writer so focussed on the unadorned human condition, Samuel Beckett made great use of technology. Famously, he wrote Krapp's Last Tape when he had heard of tape recorders but not yet seen one. His television work, too, uses the medium to the full. Think of the horrific compulsion of the screen version of Not I, in which Billie Whitelaw's gibbering, monochrome lips fill the entire screen. Or recall Jack MacGowran in the 1966 English première of Eh Joe: the face of a man alone in his room, listening to the imagined voice of a former lover, a face subjected to ever more intense close-up as the voice-over increasingly penetrates Joe's psychic armour.
How can you put a work like that on stage, especially given the notoriously strict conditions under which Beckett's estate grants performance rights? Canadian director Atom Egoyan, best known for his screen work, found a solution during this spring's Beckett centenary commemorations at the Gate Theatre in Dublin, in a production which now transfers for a three-week West End run. The stage set consists of Joe's room, in which he checks the doors and windows to ensure that he is alone for his dark night of the soul before sitting on the edge of his bed. At this point the taped voice-over begins, and on to a gauze in front of the set is projected the close-up of Joe's face, growing little by little until it is seven or eight feet tall. It is bizarrely akin to watching a stadium rock show: a smaller figure on the physical stage, simultaneously blown up to immense proportions on a screen.
Indeed, the ageing Jagger's face would work very well in Eh Joe. But the face we see here, responding to Penelope Wilton's measured, coldly accusatory voice reminding him of past transgressions, is that of Michael Gambon. The human-sized Gambon on the stage is all but immobile to the naked eye; but the crags and folds of that face in close-up are never at rest. The eyes rove about as if trying to avoid an interrogator's gaze; the lips quiver in an infinitely more forlorn version of what Clive James once dubbed "the Dallas twitch"; once or twice a hand jerks up to his face as if he had just been struck. The taped words do fall like blows: the reluctant recollections of Joe's past, both with the narrator who escaped his clutches and with a former fiancée who took several attempts to kill herself. By the end, Gambon's face has almost crumpled in on itself. The presentation lasts barely 25 minutes, yet you begin to wonder how he can manage two performances each night.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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