This is the second show I have seen in as many days that is not a play. On Beckett, with the marvelous Bill Irwin, is, as the title suggests, a talk and a performance. With a bit of tweaking it could be a TED Talk. And a mighty good one.
He tells us: As Irish people sometimes say: We’re not here together long. Irwin is keenly aware of time as he is now 68, and tempus is fugiting even as we share this performance together. Irwin acknowledges that the passages he will be using are known the world over. They have, however, taken hold of him for many, many years. It is this grip, this connection, this fascination that he feels compelled to share with us. He says: Mine is an actor’s relationship to this language – it is also a clown’s relationship to it. The great clown traditions are a lens through which I view – everything. It’s how I operate. Further disclosure: I am a clown.
And let me tell you something about being a clown - it is serious business. What looks like carefree antics come after years of refining and polishing. So yes, Beckett is perfect clown material.
Irwin does not focus on the two most famous plays Endgame and Waiting For Godot (He has appeared in both. I saw him in 2009 as Vladimir with Nathan Lane, John Goodman and John Glover and and in 1988 as Pozzo with Steve Martin, Robin Williams and Murray Abraham). These plays are featured but do not take over and suck the oxygen out of the room. Here they are seen as part of the bouquet that is Beckett's gift to Irwin and Irwin's gift to us.
The piece on which he spends the most time is Texts For Nothing. I once saw this by the brilliant Joseph Chaikin in Seattle. Chaikin was aphasic after a stroke he suffered in the 80’s. His speech was halting, haunting and laser like. During that production he also played a recording of him reciting the same text as a younger healthier man. I was transported and for the first time felt that I might have a teeny understanding of what Beckett was about.
Texts For Nothing drops a sinker into a man in the middle of being. He is holding himself in his own arms and noticing the vast expanse of life that is himself and everything else around him. Irwin performs three sections of this piece, and with each one he sinks deeper and deeper into the narrator - and we go with him.
An excerpt from Watt, an early novel and the only piece that was originally written in English - the rest were written in French and translated into English by Beckett. Again an examination of a moment in which a man regrets nothing and everything. Irwin tells us it has little to do with the rest of the novel, but it jumped out at him begging to be spoken.
The story flags a little as we enter Godot. Irwin is so entranced by this play that he loves and hates that he wants us to appreciate the delicacy, the specificity, the brilliance of the precision. He tells the tale well, but we were waiting for him to get to the performing of it. Irwin is not only earnest, he is mercurial. A dollop of him performing goes a long way in explaining Beckett.
I know more than I did about Samuel Beckett - more than I even knew I could know. But most of all I got to spend 85 minutes with Bill Irwin, which may be the true gift in all of this.
(Photo by Carol Rosegg)
What the popular press says...
"When Bill Irwin talks about how the language of Samuel Beckett “has gone viral,” he becomes a walking, writhing index of a contagion’s symptoms. This is a grave and incurable condition in which the human body is at war with itself, its mind and the inescapable forces of gravity. So on the stage of the Irish Repertory Theatre, where Mr. Irwin’s captivating On Beckett opened on Wednesday night, you will find a terminally possessed creature speaking in contradictory utterances as seemingly involuntary as hiccups. And shrinking and growing like Lewis Carroll’s Alice after drinking a Wonderland elixir. And melting into asymmetry, like a waxwork in a fire."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"In this generous, sweet-spirited lecture, then, we can’t quite reach the mental space where Beckett’s mystery operates. Yet Irwin points to it and, with incredible craft, offers a tantalizing glimpse of performances yet to come. If he doesn’t quite give us Beckett’s cold darkness, at least he offers us the warmth of a votive flame."
Helen Shaw for Time Out New York
External links to full reviews from popular press...