Project Arts Centre, Dublin
Directed by Sarah Jane Scaife
Featuring Raymond Keane
(and sculptural figure)
October 5th 2018
Review by Dúnlaith Bird
—— page 1
Company SJ’s production of Company opens with an echo of laughter and a glow of faint, “shadowy light”. Gradually, the audience becomes aware that the pale shapes in the dark are screens, indicating that the text will be present on stage throughout, interwoven with the performance. In a Q&A session afterwards, director Sarah Jane Scaife tells us that for her, “when you see the prose, you see the plays”, and in the plays, you see “the prose wandering on stage”. This constant interaction means that the categories and boundaries of genre with Beckett are “not so rigid as you’d think”. Scaife’s understanding of the text, both its innate theatricality and its form, lends this production of Beckett’s 1979 novella unexpected depth and resonance.
In the middle of the stage, a “sculptural figure” lies prone on a table, “one on his back in the dark”. The face is detailed in sharp relief, the limbs elongated and almost skeletal, the body dressed in a simple loincloth. Roman Paska’s creation is more than a work of art. Developed in collaboration with Scaife and Raymond Keane, the fully articulated figure is lifelike, uncanny, bringing forth “another of that other”. Emerging from the gloom into this circle of light, Keane leans over the figure to begin what at times recalls an anatomy lecture, attempting to dissect his existence for a putative audience. As he himself acknowledges later in the Q&A, his physiognomy is a particular advantage for this part. His long, lean figure in a black polo neck, with a shock of grey hair and a carved, keen face, conveys the strange impression that what we are seeing is a version of Beckett speaking on stage, attempting to excise meaning in the dark.
Yet it is Keane’s care for the creature which particularly surprises. As he cradles the pale, vulnerable figure in his arms, one is forcibly reminded of the Pietà. This attention is evident in each of Keane’s physical interactions with the figure. As he lifts and caresses its head and hands, we listen to the voice of memory: “a small boy you come out of Connolly’s Stores, holding your mother by the hand”. Keane’s tenderness towards the figure makes the ensuing confusion at his mother’s anger all the more wrenching. As he listens to the voice recount how the mother “shook off your little hand”, Keane also lets go of the figure’s hand, turning the act of remembering into a re-enactment of childhood trauma. Micro-adjustments in the figure’s attitude are performed by Keane with such deftness that it almost seems to live and breathe. When Keane mentions the possibility of “a hand closing”, one almost expects the figure’s hand to move of its own volition.
The gradual imbuing of the figure with an independent existence reinforces the themes of creation evoked in the text: “the crawling creator” in the same dark as “his creature”. The figure is protean; Keane raises its legs for birth, and it becomes a mother. Then, as he rocks it like a child, he himself becomes the mother, before the body rises to embody the father
walking out into the mountains. So close is the relationship that Keane and the figure seem to double each other: the figure white, with its hands and feet largely in darkness, Keane dressed in black, with his hands and feet stark white. At the end of each interaction Keane returns the figure to the rest position on his back in the dark, and the feet are carefully turned up, like the full stops at the end of a paragraph.
—— page 2
Keane’s body is a tool he masters completely, much like his manipulation of the figure. At one point, he enumerates the possible positions he could assume. Finally, he straightens himself out inch by inch until fully extended. Seemingly suspended horizontally over the dark stage, his form echoes the prostrate sculptural figure on the table above him. Meanwhile, almost imperceptibly, his voice becomes closer to that of the recordings, a change of resonance as he lies on his back in the dark. His feet, of course, are adjusted like those of the figure to indicate another full stop, as though both bodies were slowly converting back to text. In the silence, he remains improbably, sculpturally still. The other positions he assumes throughout the play are no less evocative, from Pompeii man hunched and awaiting his own destruction, to a small boy hiding under the table, at once protected and imprisoned by the dangling legs of the sculptural figure. As the voice describes crawling in the dark, his motions are precise and geometric, giving greater amplitude to the words “left knee moves forward six inches thus half halving distance between it and homologous hand”. Crawling through the mathematical permutations, his relish for the work is restored: “possibly of all the most diverting”.
There is one slightly jarring note in Keane’s otherwise remarkable performance. The power of his delivery, and of Scaife’s direction, lies in their restraint. The memories are not milked for their pathos, and in general, as the text states, the “flat tone” remains “unchanged”. There is an understanding that in this text, despair, grief, and the imperative to persist are rarely dramatic in their expression. When Keane at a late point in the performance brings his tone up, almost sobbing on stage, the naked emotion feels perhaps too easy a release both for the performer and the audience. This small moment aside, Keane provides a conduit for the rare force of Scaife’s direction, channelling it through to the sculptural figure, abstracting the self in service of an exceptional whole.
Like the sculptural figure, the screens offer the possibility of “another other” on stage with Keane: the physical presence of white type projected on black screens. The backdrop becomes a kind of deconstructed page for the audience to read down, across, and even backwards. At one point the words dissolve into letters and fall, jumbled, to the bottom of the screen. These pages of light on dark, torn from the confines of linearity, play a fundamental role in the faltering construction of the self on stage. The long rectangular screen to stage left fleetingly shows a capital “I” stretching the height of the stage. In a world of second- and third-person voices, it offers a powerful moment in which performative speech and performative text combine.
Worth considering, however, is whether the screens at times make the distinction between narratorial voices too clear. Unlike the recent Gare Saint Lazare Ireland production
of Beckett’s prose text How It Is (January 2018), where voices and repetitions overlap, here the delineation between character on stage and text on screen is sharp. Keane delivers none of the lines that appear on screen. Indeed, the screens appear at times to mock the performer, telling Keane that “[y]our mind never active at any time is now even less than ever so”. In terms of performance this approach is effective: gales of laughter from the audience confirm that the screens provide light relief and even help to create a new sense of company.
—— page 3
Yet at times this delineation of the voices seems excessive, almost an addition of a “voice in the first person singular”. This is particularly apparent in the sequence where Keane evokes the “possible encounters”, and the screen counters with “A dead rat”. As the audience laughs, Keane rejoices over the “addition to company that would be!” Rapidly, with almost an excess of irony, the screen rejoinders, “A rat long dead”. Despite the vocal appreciation of the audience, one is left wondering whether this stages a division between the voices which is absent in the text: “for the first personal singular and a fortiori plural had never any place in your vocabulary”. Some crossovers or echoes between lines given to the performer and the screens would perhaps have preserved the ambiguity of the text.
The technical skill of the production team is evident at every level, from lighting design to sound editing. Fundamental to the success of the production is the interleaving of recorded, live, and screen voices. The quality of Tim Martin’s sound recordings is impressive, the recorded voice perceptibly different to Keane’s voice on stage, yet still identifiably his. Stephen Dodd’s lighting design is perfectly conceived and executed to complement Martin’s soundscape, translating the “shadowy light” of the text to the stage. At one point, a tight pool of light over the sculptural figure allows Keane to fade to the edge of visibility while remaining only inches away. His hands and face become faint blurs as he moves out of the light, the visual translation of a voice that “slowly ebbs”. In an even more remarkable sequence, Keane walks the farmland, going through the motions of memory, his “back in the dark”. All we see is an edge of light, the contour of a man. Meanwhile his face is bright as he moves slowly towards a snow-white light, capturing the “snowlit scene” of the text.
The precision and thoughtfulness of Scaife’s direction is palpable throughout this production, as for example in the diving scene. The evocation of the child poised on the high board is subtle. Rather than raising the figure’s arms into a diving position, Keane positions it close to the edge of the table, suggesting tension, the implacable edge, and the dark below. Scaife’s commitment to intermediality allows her to channel and direct the prose in such a way that that the transformation from page to stage seems one of natural, inevitable translation. Her relationship with Company is long and complex, as she notes during the Q&A session. Her first production of Company for the stage in 1990 was more concerned with the “aesthetics”, the visual and aural aspects of the play. Scaife’s partner, Tim Martin, recorded and mixed the sound for that production, as he did for this one.
However, this Company is a very different offering, informed by the deaths of Scaife’s beloved father and her partner Martin in close succession. With great dignity, Scaife notes that this production is “more about the humanity than the aesthetic”. Yet this personal note is
never a pretext for indulgence, but rather a partial explanation for the rare force of the production. Scaife, with Company SJ, succeeds in crafting these overwhelming emotions and personal experiences into a believable, Beckettian rendition of despair and hope. As the performance ends, two figures lie prone, two sets of bare feet facing each other, backs in the dark. The figure’s extremities are in darkness, Keane’s livid white, perfect mirror images of each other. The audience is swept up in Company: after taking his bow, Keane gestures to the figure, still lying on the table behind him, and the applause rises still further from the full house. Company SJ’s production is transcendent, a new reading of Beckett’s text which is as Scaife notes, “a fully embedded, aural, kinetic experience”.
Dr Dúnlaith Bird is Senior Lecturer in English at the Université Paris 13. In 2010, she organised the Beckett Between International Conference in Paris, and co-edited the subsequent Samuel Beckett Today/Aujourd’hui publication with Sjef Houppermans. She organised the inaugural Beckett Brunch at the Centre Culturel Irlandais, Paris, in 2010 and 2017, and the third Beckett Brunch, ‘Beckett Beyond’, will take place in March 2019. She is currently writing on electricity and Samuel Beckett, and has presented most recently in Paris, Utrecht, and Prague.