Review – Beckett Women: Ceremonies of Departure

There is a brief, but vitally important, stage direction given by Beckett in his staging directions for Come and Go: Silence. It’s a shame that the sound designers and director of Ceremonies of Departure has chosen to largely ignore the importance of silence to the solemnity of the plays on offer here. Instead, the audience are bombarded with ambient noises, most of which sound like a bluebottle flying in and out of a wind tunnel, or a field of drunken crickets. These, one suspects, are supposed to add something to the atmosphere. Instead, they simply cross over from incidental to invasive.

Staging four separate Beckett plays – Not I, Footfalls, Rockaby, and Come and Go – in one setting is always going to bring clutter. The beauty and effectiveness of Beckett’s work lies in the sparsity of it: the lone image of May pacing back and forth, the premature old, unkempt woman in her rocking chair, the disembodied mouth. In its place, we have the borders of one play infringing upon the others.

Not I is easily Beckett’s most challenging work to perform. Amanda Gann must therefore be applauded for not only managing to get through the piece in English, but for immediately repeating it in Beckett’s own French translation (something which the programme notes has never been attempted before). This reviewer unfortunately does not speak French, but there does appear to be subtle differences. Gann’s voice is slightly more tuneful in French; at times, the edges of her mouth betray a smile. Her intonations in both languages and perhaps too musical, her delivery not quick enough. There is too much sense of the voice being in control of what is being said, instead of the manic delivery immortalised by Billy Whitelaw.

We also do not get the sense of disembodiment. Behind a net screen, we seen the actress take position in front of a camera focused on her mouth, the auditor transposed to the role of camera operator. The mouth is then projected onto the screen, with an unhealthy amount of nostril and cheek on show. Inevitably, as much as you try to hone in on the projection alone, your eye falls to the seated actress.

Footfalls is a slightly more faithful presentation, albeit with the pacing taking place on a strip of raised platform. We also get to see the actress Carmel O’Reilly seating at a microphone and reading stand, performing the role of Woman’s Voice. For some reason, the director wants to show us the mechanics of the theatre, stripping away the magic and mystery. The Auditor also reappears, guiding Sarah Newhouse on and off the platform, and ringing out the ‘faint single chime’ opening the play which was anything but faint. Again, the audience should be focused entirely on May, there with her in her obsession, but we are forcibly removed from the illusion by the staging. At least the performance – requiring an uneasy blend of exactitude and conveyance of being adrift – is up to stretch here.

Rockaby is perhaps the worst offender here. There is nothing at fault with O’Reilly’s delivery: that line of ‘Fuck life’ said so flatly is still shocking (Irish audiences love to hear old people swearing, hence the popularity of Mrs Brown’s Boys). However, the black, hooded Auditor reappears once again, in control of the rocking chair, rocking our protagonist back and forth. Beckett’s original stage notes calls for the chair to be ‘controlled mechanically without assistance’ from the actress within. Difficult to pull off, certainly, but with the Auditor standing eerily over, the obvious suggestion is that death is nearby, an image that screams out what the text allow should convey. We also again have another camera, a tight shot of the near comatose women’s oscillating head, accompanying by the dreaded ‘ambient noises’. Annoyingly, the black-gloved grip of the Auditor strays into shot.

Spike Milligan once said that the longer a joke goes on for, the funnier it becomes. They is certainly humour in the woman’s repeated demand of ‘more’ once we suspect she has rocked her last. If you can ignore the presence of the camera, the auditor and the projection (unless the director is seeking to channel Buster Keaton’s character in Beckett’s Film), it’s an enjoyable piece.

Come and Go is the shortest and most successful of the four plays on offer, bringing all three actresses together for a simple repeated pattern that Beckett enjoys so much. Seated centre front, it’s an accurate rendition of this engaging, two-page play full of black humour. Overall, it was a clever move by The Poets’ Theatre to bring together four of Beckett’s plays containing female leads to showcase, although the addition of Happy Days and Winnie would have been most welcome. Gann, Newhouse and O’Reilly do their competent best, but their performances are let down by poor decisions in staging and direction. More space and silence next time, please.

Beckett Women: Ceremonies of Departure continues at the MAC, Belfast until 12th November.

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