You don’t need to know anything about director Peter Brook to register his preoccupation with theatrical space at Fragments, a painless collage of five Beckett pieces presented by Theatre for a New Audience at the Baryshnikov Arts Center (he’s directed the programme with Marie-Hélène Estienne in a production from C.I.C.T. / Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord's in Paris). As you enter, you’ll be considering the architecture, the steep descent to the stage, the minimalism of the set and a demarcated playing area. “For something of quality to take place,” Brook has written in The Open Door, “an empty space needs to be created. An empty space makes it possible for a new phenomenon to come to life, for anything that touches on content, meaning, expression, language and music can exist only if the experience is fresh and new.”
You’ll feel the aliveness of this space, fresh and new, which can seem at odds with Beckett’s vision—the playwright wants to deaden and does so with a violin played badly at the top, rubbing our faces in the mundane. The first play is Rough for Theatre I, a Godot clown show for a blind man and amputee, old friends to us, tender and brutal (it’s an interesting choice, too, because Brook, who is eighty-six, has, of course, written famously about the Theatre of the Rough). We know the kinds of work his compatriot, also from the British Isles who found a place to work in Paris, has written as well: The blind man admits to having had thoughts of suicide, but he’s rejected the idea, he says: He is unhappy, “but not unhappy enough.” The two players, Jos Houben and Marcello Magni, are physical actors who don’t act from “the neck up,” like movie actors, which is unappealing to Brook. Instead, they’re the kind of working professionals we’ve read about in Brook’s writing who have “clear intention . . . intellectual alertness, true feeling and a balanced and tuned body.”
Those expecting a Billie Whitelaw to present the second work of the evening, Rockaby, will be in for a surprise—there’s no physical or vocal resemblance between her and Kathryn Hunter, who has taken on the voice/role in a completely different way—no period costume, recordings, not even a rocker. Instead, the monologue is done very straightforwardly, ultimately, played in a four-legged chair—you’ll grasp the structure of the poetry here instead of being mystified by it; it’s not the spooky mood piece you always thought you knew, more interesting to talk about than to live through. Spoken before death, “Rockaby” is masterly but tedious (and it’s supposed to be)—if your brow doesn’t grow heavy during this monologue (or “That Time,” for that matter) you’re not feeling what Beckett is getting at. Brook, contradictorily, has written about wanting his own work to be riveting at each moment—he’d even pack up his troupe and take them to perform in front of children at schools because he’d get immediate signals of interest or frustration. I’m not sure kids will much like “Rockaby,” but it won’t be Hunter’s fault.
When we think of Beckett we connect him to words first, probably because of his Nobel. However, he worked precisely in image–toward the end of his life he was even creating films, without characters, that were all visual. Houben and Magni re-enter Fragments with “Act Without Words II,” a play about the monotony of workaday life—the men can hold the audience, despite the purposely repetitive nature of the material. I’m not sure we always think that Beckett must have terrifically strong actors, as long as there is name recognition—yet, when he gets them, as he does with the three artists here, who have also worked with Théâtre du Complicité–his plays, the ones that are rarely done, refract like small gems. “Neither,” a short monologue performed by Hunter, may speak to Brook’s interest in inner and outer life—“This is necessary because it is life that we are showing, inner and outer life, each inseparable from the other.” “Come and Go” is Beckett unleashed, free and funny, where we can laugh with all three actors, all wonderful with comedy, at once—and without feeling echoes of an existential curse.
What I think Brook has done for Beckett in sixty minutes is humanize him—he's recharged the dramatist as a more approachable artist. We know Beckett best as a writer eager to extinguish a love of living, no matter how valid we may believe his vision. We also know that in certain circumstances, such as in a production of Endgame, performed in New York by Ireland’s Gate Theatre years ago, Beckett’s view of life can seem so true that it is transcendent. What Brook tells us is that “in existence, below, around and above, another zone even more invisible, even farther from the forms which we are capable of reading or recording . . . contain(s) extremely powerful sources of energy. . . . In these little-known fields of energy exist impulses which guide us towards quality.” It is this swirling miasma with which Brook surrounds and saturates Beckett in Fragments, giving him space, finding the ley lines, allowing conductivity, and energizing the darkness.
© 2011 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.
Photo: Marcello Magni in “Act Without Words II” from Fragments : All rights reserved by Bruce Cohen Group LTD.
Brook quotations used in this article: Brook, Peter. The Open Door. New York: Pantheon, 1993. Print.
Visit the Web site for the Baryshnikov Arts Center for tickets: http://bacnyc.org/
Theatre for a New Audience
In association with Baryshnikov Arts Center
NY Premiere of C.I.C.T. / Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord's
From the texts of Samuel Beckett
Directed By Peter Brook And Marie-Hélène Estienne
Previews Wed, Nov 9; Opens Sunday, Nov 13 at Baryshnikov Arts Center
NEW YORK, October 19 – Following acclaimed performances internationally, Theatre for a New Audience, in association with Baryshnikov Arts Center, will present the New York premiere of C.I.C.T. / Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord's Fragments from the texts by Samuel Beckett for only 29 performances at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, 450 West 37th Street.
Fragments assembles the five Beckett shorts: Rough for Theatre I, Rockaby, Act without Words II, Neither and Come and Go.
Beginning previews Wednesday, November 9, at 8:00pm for an opening Sunday, November 13, at 3:00pm (for a run through December 4), Fragments is directed by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne and features Jos Houben, Kathryn Hunter and Marcello Magni, three artists who have worked extensively with Théâtre du Complicité. Lighting is by Philippe Vialatte.
In another of his exquisitely crafted, late-career creations, Mr. Brook and Ms. Estienne interpret the 20th century’s greatest playwright. Beckett was acclaimed in part for his incomparable concision, his unique mastery of the breathtakingly profound short work.
Fragments performs Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 8:00pm with matinees Wednesday and Saturday at 2:00pm (no matinee Wednesday, November 9) and Sundays at 3:00pm
Tickets for Fragments are $75 and may be purchased via the web at www.web.ovationtix.com/trs/dept/745 or via phone at 866-811-4111.
$10.00 New Deal tickets for ages 25 and under or full-time students may be purchased in advance on a first come, first served basis, with code “NEWDEAL”. Valid ID listing proof of age or enrollment as a full-time student required.
Theatre for a New Audience is offering subscription packages that may be ordered from Theatre for a New Audience. To order or for more information visit www.tfana.org.