‘Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.’
The line comes from Nell in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, but it is not a bad summary for much of his work. In fact, so much of Beckett seems to be about the nature of nothingness, that we were tempted to title this article ‘Much Ado About Beckett’s Nothing.’ While that sounds like a fun theme, it totally misses the point.
Seeing the work of Samuel Beckett performed by Dublin’s Gate Theatre company is akin to seeing Gilbert & Sullivan performed by D’Oyly Cart , hearing Wagner at the Bayreuth Festival, or seeing Shakespeare performed at the Globe Theatre. It’s a chance to experience the work of art in its natural habitat, performed by the people who care about it the most.
That’s why we were so excited to catch the Beckett double-bill in Ann Arbor last night. Watt and Endgame were brought to the stage of the Power Center straight from Ireland’s acclaimed Gate Theatre, complete with the talents of acclaimed Irish stage and film actor, Barry McGovern .
The Gate Theatre was established in 1928 by Hilton Edwards and Micheál MacLiammóir, who gave Dublin audiences an introduction to the world of European and American theatre and also to classics from the modern and Irish repertoire. In 1983, the directorship passed to Michael Colgan under whose guidance the theatre continues to represent Ireland at the very highest level of artistic endeavor, receiving numerous invitations each year to major festivals on every continent.
The Gate’s touring production opens with Watt. This one-man play is based on Beckett’s second published novel in English, largely written while the author was in hiding in the south of France during World War II. It describes a man’s journey to the reclusive Mr. Knott’s house; once within, he becomes Mr. Knott’s manservant. Watt is characterized by an almost hypnotic use of repetition, extreme deadpan philosophical humor, deliberate misuse of the English language, and rich visual descriptions. Barry McGovern brilliantly performs the role of Watt. McGovern himself selected the texts from the novel for this one‐man performance, and that it works so well as a dramatic piece is largely owing to the actors interpretive gifts.
Endgame, which is performed after intermission, is considered one of Beckett’s most important works — second in popularity only to Waiting for Godot — and written in a style associated with the Theatre of the Absurd. The play focuses on Hamm, played by Owen Roe with a refreshing dimentionality that characterizes this production. Hamm is an aged master who is blind and not able to stand up; his servant Clov (Barry McGovern) cannot sit down. The two co‐dependent characters have been fighting for years, yet are never able to part. Also present are Hamm’s legless parents Nagg (Des Keogh) and Nell (Rosaleen Linehan), who occasionally pop out of the rubbish bins in which they are kept. (We find this to be a deeply unsettling image, even in a post Oscar-the-Grouch milieau.)
Given Beckett’s propensity for challenging material and bleak themes that focus on death, isolation and that nothing that feels like something, it’s misleading to characterize this event as a fun evening of theatre. But the chance to hear Beckett’s beautiful prose and see it performed by people whose every nuance informs the text is truly a joy. The fact that the audience finds much to chuckle about in both Watt and Endgame, even if it is our unhappy human condition, is a bonus. Unless you’re planning a trip to Dublin soon, we recommend you catch this production while you can.
This production of Beckett appears in Ann Arbor courtesy of the Gate’s U.S. tour, limited to six exclusive venues, which opened via UMS at the Power Center in Ann Arbor, Thursday October 27. There will be two additional performances this weekend, Friday October 28 and Saturday, October 29, at 8:00 p.m. For tickets or additional information, contact the University Musical Society at 734.764.2538 or online. Tickets may also be purchased in person at the League Ticket Office (911 North University Avenue). UMS Ticket Office hours are Monday to Friday 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Saturday 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.