(Amy O’Connor’s article appeared in The Irish Times, 8/29; Pan Pan’s production of WHAT IS THE WORD is due to screen in Belfast and Paris in the coming weeks. Photograph: Robbie Jack/Corbis via Getty of Pan Pan’s Embers by Samuel Beckett.)

‘Beckett is quite a good voice, I would imagine, in terms of the tone of pandemic’

As Samuel Beckett neared the end of his life, he dictated a poem to his trusted collaborator Barbara Bray. Originally written in French and titled Comment Dire, the poem grapples with the struggle to express oneself. Many interpret it as having been inspired by Beckett’s aphasia, which left him temporarily unable to speak or write.

On the manuscript of the English translation of the poem, titled what is the word, he left a note reading, “Keep! For end”. It was his final poem. 

The poem lends its name to a new show from Pan Pan Theatre. Billed as an audio cinematic experience, WHAT IS THE WORD presents a curated selection of Beckett’s poems, performed by some of Ireland’s most esteemed actors. Mixed and designed especially for cinemas, the recordings of the poems are accompanied by abstract light projections. The objective is to create an environment in which audiences can fully immerse themselves in Beckett’s poetry, many of which might not be well known to the general public. 

“It has that function of allowing people to hear these poems . . . and giving people a chance to hear them in that environment, which is very clear and read by wonderful actors,” says Gavin Quinn, co-artistic director of Pan Pan. 

While a cinema might not seem like a natural venue for Beckett’s poetry, it is very much in keeping with Pan Pan’s signature style. Over the years the company has staged a number of Beckett productions, often outside of the medium for which they were originally conceived. “We have worked with radio plays like Embers, All That Fall, Cascando,” says Quinn. “We’ve worked with Quad, his piece for television.”

Beckett may be known primarily for his work as a dramatist and novelist, but Quinn says he and his collaborators are long-time readers of his poetry and were drawn to the “intimacy” of his work. “They’re a mixture of quite beautiful narrative poems . . . and his later, more abstract work, which would be more associated with his minimalism and his need to express. Our idea was to curate a selection of these poems with a lot of different voices.”

The show is a collaboration between Quinn, Aedín Cosgrove, Ros KavanaghJimmy Eadie and Nicholas Johnson, who began working on it about four years ago. After diving into Beckett’s back catalogue, they selected the poems to be recorded by the likes of Olwen Fouéré, Andrew Bennett and Des Cave. 

“Our idea was to curate a selection of these poems with a lot of different voices,” says Quinn. “In the end we use 11 voices, which we call speakers.”

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