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Beckett Friel Pinter Festival

Michael Gambon. Photo The Gate Theatre

Beckett Friel Pinter Festival:

Eh Joe and The Yalta Game

Following last weeks productions of Samuel Beckett’s “First Love” and Harold Pinter’s “The Dumb Waiter,” this week sees the Gate Theatre’s “Beckett Friel Pinter Festival” moving onto the next of its six, short productions, with “Eh Joe” by Samuel Beckett, and “The Yalta Game” by Brian Friel.

“Eh Joe” sees director, Atom Egoyan, reviving his 2006, Gate Theatre production to ensure Beckett’s 1965 teleplay once again translates successfully to the stage. No easy task, given that Beckett’s “Eh Joe” is the cinematic equivalent of a half hour reaction shot played directly to camera. Reprising his role as Joe, Michael Gambon plays the aging man with a dark past trapped by, and within, a Voice, impeccably delivered by Penelope Wilton. Disturbingly confronting the dark, you don’t always want to go where “Eh Joe” wants to take you. You don’t want to care for Joe, who has some deeply dislikeable traits. Yet you are compelled to go there, compelled to confront, compelled to experience, and compelled to care. And you are deeply enriched in the process in what could arguably be the definitive stage adaptation of “Eh Joe.”

Penelope Wilton. Photo The Gate Theatre

Set designer, Francis O’Connor, understands that in “Eh Joe” it's not enough to want to hide from the world, you must cover up all access and memory of access to it. Window, wardrobe, door, all disappear behind curtains and into a pea-souper mist that absorbs the light itself, wonderfully evoked by lighting designer, James McConnell. Yet walls aren’t just about keeping things out, but about what they keep locked in. In the dimly lit dark, the Voice inside Joe’s head relays sins of the past in a harrowing present without any sense of a future. Sitting on his bed, throttling the dead in his head, the feeble looking Joe gazes at the God like image dominating the stage which has things it needs to have heard. Crafting a clever, and deeply evocative juxtaposition, Egoyan contrasts a televised, live projection of Gambon in close-up, which dominates half of the stage, with the theatrical man himself, sitting onstage on a bed, looking diminutive and frail against the gradual approaching image. Meticulously focused, Gambon articulates through the topography of his features a landscape of pained expression. And the effect is sublime. Who is there now who still knows you Joe, eh? Many. And many more who will want to. For this is not just a rare production, it is also a rare privilege. “Eh Joe” is a deeply dark yet moving production, one which shows Gambon’s genius in the simplicity and clarity of his execution, in what is unquestionably a heartbreakingly brilliant performance.

If “Eh Joe” courts the darkness, Brian Friel’s “The Yalta Game” is both charming and light, without ever being frivolous. First produced in The Gate Theatre in 2001, Friel’s “The Yalta Game,” adapted from Anton Chekhov’s 1899 short story, “The Lady with the Lapdog,” oozes oodles of charm, tempered by just a hint of cynicism.

Sophie Robinson. Photo The Gate Theatre

Set in Crimea at the end of the summer season, we find Dimitri engaged in the Yalta Game, a game of people watching and of people conquest. For 'tis the season to be judging, and there's no better place to do so than the town square over a coffee. Here the international set like to promenade, and Dimitri projects both real and imagined lives onto those in front of him. Until he meets Anna and sets about successfully seducing the considerably younger woman with a husband in Russia and an intolerable dog called Yalta. Yet endings are always inevitable and if the real intrudes on the imagined, the imagined can equally intrude on the real. Indeed, it can often be impossible to tell them apart. In the end, this anatomy of an affair sees both lovers knowing their life to be half real, half imagined, yet wanting to be all alive. If the end doesn’t quite deliver as powerfully as it might, it might have to do with the fact that the fantasy made real can rarely compare to the one imagined.

Declan Conlon. Photo the The Gate Theatre

Director David Grindley ensures Friel’s take on Chekhov never gets too bogged down by its lack of dramatic power, knowing its strength lies in its characters. Declan Conlon is excellent as the world-weary, cynical connoisseur Dimitri, an aging Casanova choosing a girl a little older than his daughter as possibly his last big conquest. Sophie Robinson as the astute, yet self-deluded Anna, a younger woman with a passion for security and for a love less ordinary, is utterly delightful. An innocent abroad, Anna's anything but naive, exhibiting little flickers of delicious delight as her affair grows. If Friel’s polished Chekhovian gem holds a mirror up to ourselves, Francis O’Connor’s set design suggests we might not always see what’s being reflected. When all is said and done, a kiss might be just a kiss, or it might be everything worth having in this delightful and charming production, one which provides many insights into Friel's longer works.

“Eh Joe” by Samuel Beckett, and “The Yalta Game” by Brian Friel, run at The Gate Theatre as part of their “Beckett Friel Pinter Festival” until March 19th.

For further information on these and other “Beckett Friel Pinter Festival” events, visit The Gate Theatre

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