JOYCE MCMILLAN on FIRST LOVE at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 25.5.13.
4 stars ****
OF ALL the theatre companies in all the world, the Gare St. Lazare Players of Ireland, founded in 1997, surely have the clearest mission. Year after year, the actor Conor Lovett performs the prose works of Samuel Beckett, as directed by his wife, Judy Hegarty Lovett. The stage is usually bare, apart from a small chair; and although the company occasionally varies the repertoire, Beckett’s prose writing remains the heart and soul of their art.
So now, they bring to Edinburgh Beckett’s 1948 short story First Love, also scheduled to appear – in a new Gate Theatre staging – in this year’s Edinburgh Festival. In this story, Beckett looks back to the year when his narrator was 25; and in his inimitable first-person style – spare, laconic, brutally honest, yet forever tempted by a bit of aimless philosophical speculation – he tells the tale of this lonely, homeless character’s entanglement with a girl called Lulu, or maybe Anna, whom he meets on a bench beside one of Dublin’s canals.
In one sense, everyone who has ever been in love will recognise the obsessional, inconvenient feeling for Lulu that the speaker describes. Yet here, Beckett is also creating a memorable and strangely contemporary portrait of the extreme self-absorption of a certain kind of young man’s mind, a disconnectedness that makes this woman seem to him more like a troubling natural phenomenon than a fellow human being; in the end, his coldness towards her, his lack of actual love, is shocking.
Yet Beckett observes the working of his mind with a ruthles, utterly convincing clarity; and perhaps with a kind of foreknowledge, beautifully captured in Conor Lovett’s unassuming but pitch-perfect performance, that this kind of rootless and heartless masculinity can only become more common, as the ties that bind men into society slacken, and the individual becomes ever more able to walk away, from all that love might actually mean.