I Met A Man Who Wasn’t There
So goes the popular nursery rhyme. Which could equally serve as an apt description for Dead Centre and Gate Theatre’s co-production, “Beckett’s Room.” A show without performers, “Beckett’s Room” by Dead Centre and Mark O’Halloran, serves up an ingenious mix of post-modern meta-theatricality as cinema, stage, and puppetry converge. In a production that often pays greater homage to British World War Two Movies than it does to Samuel Beckett. And sees its clever visuals often triumphing at the expense of its stated themes.
It's 1942, and Samuel Beckett, and his partner Susanne, find themselves cozily sequestered in his Parisian apartment. In between rations of writing, eating, drinking, and sex, they secretly work for the Resistance, while listening to classical music, Django Reinhardt, and coded messages by the warm glow of the wireless. Their Gestapo friendly landlady suspects their subversive activities, and Nazis loom close to hand with all the thunderous menace of Marilyn Manson’s Beautiful People. As baddies do what baddies do, will our loving heroes perish? Or survive to join their Vera Lynn like friends in a metaphorical chorus of We'll Meet Again while pondering everything that has happened in their scared space? Meanwhile, the eye looks on.
Running for three acts beginning with the end, the final theatrical moment packs a visceral punch. Leading up to it, absent bodies are superbly hinted at by way of shadows, projections and footsteps heard moving in stereo through headphones. All of which sees O’Halloran’s script being defined by the need for the next gimmick. Understandable, given that the set is essentially the central character, and the largest puppet onstage. Superbly handled courtesy of puppeteers Ciarán Bonner, Justine Cooper, Eugenia Genunchi and Jason Lambert (even if everything risks losing out to a scene-stealing cockerel). While we never see people, they’re succinctly evoked by Brian Gleeson, Viviane De Muynck, Valentijn Dhaenens, Christoph Gawenda, Moritz Gottwald, Barbara Probst and Laurence Roothooft, employing some excellent vocal work to accompany their vague visual representations. If the intricate technical demands force a ploddingly ponderous pace, alongside O’Halloran’s overt and indirect references to Beckett’s work, it helps add some Beckettian texture, as well as creating some interesting intersections.
Directed by Bush Moukarzel and Ben Kidd, “Beckett’s Room” finds sounds, music, and dialogue being delivered through headphones, a la Lauren-Shannon Jones' Fetch, or the opening to Dead Centre's Chekhov’s First Play, enriching and focusing the audial experience. Marrying cinematic spectacle with puppeteering intimacy, the design team of Andrew Clancy (Set and Effects), Stephen Dodd (Lighting), Kevin Gleeson (Music and Sound), José Miguel Jiménez (Video), and Saileóg O’Halloran (Costumes), do wonders in re-creating Beckett’s Parisian apartment. Like an unpopulated, life-sized diorama with countless working parts, or the original set for Claude Rains’ The Invisible Man, “Beckett’s Room” trades in detailed retro, right down to its puppeteering and semi-cinematic framing. Allowing its blanks to be filled in by the imagination, filtered through cultural memory, “Beckett’s Room” serves up a sumptuous sensory feast evoking images of absence. Yet it's an absence that rarely draws enough focuses to its themes, but to its clever theatrical staging.
A production in which gimmickry trumps all, “Beckett’s Room's” often draws attention to what it’s doing rather than what it’s saying, its self-professed meanings losing out to its ingenuity. If it's magic, it's never quite magical enough. Like seeing Pinocchio’s strings, or catching the ventriloquist's mouth move, “Beckett’s Room” finds you constantly fascinated at how the puppet’s being manipulated. Rich in simple and sophisticated devices designed to intrigue and delight, “Beckett’s Room’s” story and themes often come in a distant second to its spectacle. Yet “Beckett’s Room” delights the child in all of us as it sets about making these walls talk.
“Beckett’s Room” by Dead Centre and Mark O’Halloran, in a Dead Centre and Gate Theatre co-productions, runs as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2019 at The Gate Theatre until Sept 28
For more information, visit Dublin Theatre Festival 2019 or The Gate Theatre.