“It’s about the meaning of life or else it has no meaning at all,” the American woman in front of me whispers loudly to her husband just as the house lights go down. Ah, a Beckett connoisseur, then.
Beckett’s short plays are not often performed, perhaps because of their length, perhaps because they are sometimes perceived as being somewhat less accessible. Ethica presents four short pieces in a manner that serves both to complement and illuminate each other. Beckett is often painstakingly exact in how to stage his pieces, occasionally incorporating diagrams for good measure. Thus what matters in any production of Beckett is the directorial choices that see these instructions through. The joint direction of Marc Atkinson and Nicholas Johnson seems to have emphasized the pacing of these pieces, for the most part a measured, deliberate one with the sense of momentum gained over time.
Play is the first short (and a personal favourite), performed by Ellen Patterson, Siobhan Cullen and Peter Corboy. Atkinson and Johnson’s aesthetic saw the actors in more streamlined, leather-like urns, with grey and white faces, giving the appearance of modern furniture in the strangest of sitting-rooms. Corboy’s philandering character was played with the perfect balance of bravado and desperation, with Patterson and Cullen matching him in articulate virtuosity. Catastrophe, another favourite of mine, displayed the impressive vocals of Matthew Malone, who I would happily listen to for hours.
Come and Go and What Where displayed the measured pacing of the joint directors, almost dragging time out. What Where featured the rather strange costume choice of cowled robes and long grey ponytails, lending a touch of Star Wars to the percussively named Bam, Bom, Bim and Bem.
Ethica is a very good showcase of Beckett’s shorts, one that you are not likely to see again any time soon. Atkinson and Johnson’s presentation of the pieces is knowledgeably composed, as are the changes between scenes. One thing that I rather missed was Beckett’s black humour in these pieces, for although he does indeed write of the trapped, the absurd, and the dark places of humanity, he does so with a sharp and absurd wit. The meaning of life or no meaning at all? Beckett would have quite liked that…