15 NOVEMBER 1997, Page 57

Theatre 2

Beckett Shorts

(The Other Place, Stratford)

Dark moments

James Treadwell

During the interval between the two miniature trilogies that comprise this pro- duction, an elderly Yorkshireman looked up from his cup of tea and commented, `You couldn't play that lot for laughs, eh?' Well, no; but the most intriguing aspect of these six fragments of drama is their elu- sive capacity for something which, if not actually amounting to wry humour, never- theless wearily sympathises with the indi- viduals they persist in tormenting. To be fair to the man in the interval, it's the first three short plays that deliver the nightmar- ish disintegration we expect from Beckett. No one should plan on attending the first group (Footfalls, Rockaby and Not I) and skipping the second (A Piece of Monologue, Embers and That Time) unless they are experienced nihilists, confident of sleeping off the terrifying outburst emitted from the disembodied mouth of Juliet Stevenson in Not I. The second part is at once less alarming and less effective.

In the first three dramas, words fracture those who speak or think them, giving the impression — familiar from Waiting for Godot — of figures existing only as far as their inexplicably empty and hopelessly repetitive stories allow them. In the second group, narrative meanders more widely and gently, even approaching conventional dia- logue or stream-of-consciousness mono- logue. Though the usual themes of alienation and meaninglessness predomi- nate, the speakers do at least give the impression of articulating some kind of coherent subjectivity. The production seems unsure how to treat this kinder, gentler sur- realism; it's here one misses the bleakly funny or wistful side of Beckett's voices. Instead, the director Katie Mitchell chooses to counteract the faint hints of conventional drama and' characterisation by creating totally static performances, and in one case — Embers, easily the most conventional of the six dramas — allowing no visible actors at all. The effect comes perilously close to dullness rather than disorientation.

For the six plays as a whole, The Other Place has been converted into a series of black-shrouded spaces. The audience is led through from one to the next, seated or left standing, and then plunged into complete darkness before the performance area becomes dimly visible, always very close at hand. The combination of intimacy and ghostliness is well conceived. It matches the quality of Beckett's narratives perfectly; as these figures speak, one feels as if one is eavesdropping on someone who isn't actu- ally there, or looking directly into a con- sciousness that has no substance at all.

Atoms of information emerge, but every time they suggest they might add up to a story, or indeed a personality, the opacity of words intervenes. The demented daugh- ter of Footfalls speaks of a time when 'it started', but that 'it' is an impenetrable syl- lable, not an event. Her inexplicable out- burst of emotion — 'His poor arm!' she cries twice — tells us nothing beyond the anguish with which it is spoken. The woman in Rockaby thinks herself to death because death is the only actual event her mind can recall, the only thing that actually happens. Even in the strangely beautiful closing monologue, That Time, the elusive past recollected by the apparently dying man — Beckett calls him 'Listener' rather than 'Speaker' — consists mostly of ruins, disappointments and confusions, jumbled together in discontinuous snippets of for- getfulness. 'Or was that another time?' he keeps asking (or hearing his voice ask). Nothing in the six plays is ever identifiably there, where it belongs, least of all the indi- vidual presences that appear to be generat- ing what we hear. The production conveys this dislocation very powerfully.

Of the three performers — Nigel Cooke, Debra Gillett and Stevenson — only the last has solved the problem of how to invest these disembodied voices with the right kind of substance. Her delivery in Footfalls and Not I weights each word with the hard abruptness Beckett's stripped- down language demands, while still responding to the tiny tonal inflections buried in the metronomic narratives — 'No love; spared that.' As always, Stevenson's performance guarantees you won't regret booking your tickets. By contrast Gillett and (especially) Cooke sometimes end up sounding too like the automata Beckett presents in place of characters.

Still, the Stratford audience seemed to have caught the surrealist mood. As we sat down for Embers, crashing sea-sounds were projected around the dark space; the woman next to me leaned over and whis- pered, 'Someone's having a bath.' As grav- elly scraping steps signalled the arrival of the first (invisible) character, she added, `Oh, now he's shaving.' Before each trilogy, we all gathered by the theatre door waiting to be admitted. For want of a better way to endure these few minutes of Beckettian pointlessness, the theatre-goers decided, quite unnecessarily, to form a queue. There's absurdism for you.