Embers/Eh Joe

THEATRE

Embers
5 stars *****
King’s Theatre
Eh Joe
4 stars ****
Royal Lyceum Theatre

ON THE GREAT, darkened stage at the King’s Theatre – all raked with shingle, and hung with glittering strands of silver and stone like old-fashioned hanging microphones – a huge skull sits and stares out towards us. It is far higher than a man, like a great coastal rock; and in its implacable stillness and horror, it captures something of the man, Henry, who speaks in Samuel Beckett’s great 1959 radio play Embers, now staged by Pan Pan Theatre of Dublin as part of this year’s EIF Samuel Beckett season.

In transferring this powerful poem for voice and sound to the stage, Pan Pan’s director Gavin Quinn – with sculptor Andrew Clancy, lighting designer Aedin Cosgrove and sound designer Jimmy Eadie – has not sought to dramatise the tale in any conventional sense. The two actors playing Henry and his long-dead wife Ada remain caught throughout within the great skull, their faces barely glimpsed as they tell the story of a man haunted and paralysed by the apparent suicide of his father, who one day sat looking at the sea on this coast, and then walked into it, never to return.

The drama of the piece though, comes not only from the superb vocal performances by Andrew Bennett and Aine Ni Mhuiri, but from the stunning, ever-shifting washes of light and sound across the strange, stark surfaces of the skull. Samuel Beckett can always be relied on to push our ideas about theatre to their limit; and in responding to his genius, Pan Pan have created a marriage of theatre and installation that seems to capture the hard, loving and implacable soul of the work, while giving it a new theatrical life.

Beckett’s 1965 play Eh Joe, by contrast, is his first-ever piece for television, a brief 28-minute journey into the mind of an ageing man in a bleak bedroom, haunted, like Henry, by the voice of the woman who was once his wife. In approaching television as a form, Beckett simply divides the voice from the image, so that we hear the voice of the woman – strong, affectionate, reproachful – but see the face of the man, reacting to what may be a final judgment on all he has been and done. Atom Egoyan’s legendary 2006 stage production, with a magnificent recording of the monologue by Penelope Wilton, shows us not only the huge close-up image of Joe’s face, projected on a gauze, but also the live actor, the great Michael Gambon, sitting on the edge of the bed in his dressing-gown, listening, reflecting, suffering; and if a matching live performance of the monologue would have made this show absolutely perfect, It is still a breathtaking performance, worth travelling across continents to see.

Joyce McMillan
Until 25, 31
EIF pp. 32, 31.

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