Three of Beckett’s best short dramas leave a lasting impression.

Adelaide Festival Theatre, part of the Adelaide Festival
24 February, 2015

The barely perceptible flicker of an overhead light before Eh Joe commences forewarns that we are about to enter a world where wiring is not the only thing under strain. This is the bleak and edgy setting for the State Theatre Company of South Australia’s triptych of plays by Irish theatrical visionary Samuel Beckett.

Joe’s three-windowed room is grey-toned and oppressive, and feels airless and uninspiring. Here, reflection and introspection meet nuance and subtlety. Paul Blackwell is the dishevelled Joe; his plaid dressing gown atop a Kowalski-wife-beater-style shirt. The anticipation of who is beneath this guise intrigues through the first moments of silence. Whilst ensuring he is alone, it is from himself and an inner voice from the past that he cannot escape. Perhaps a prodromal indicator of worse times ahead, this glimpse in time exposes segments of Joe’s past as he sits alone on his bed. Blackwell impresses a consideration of plagued retrospection, in a snapshot of the present moment, which leads inextricably to a scrutiny of regret tinged with guilt.

Directed by Corey McMahon, God is in the detail of Beckett’s 1965 play created for television. Eh Joe requires stage minutiae, to which Blackwell responds with a manifestly righteous performance. Every facial muscle reacts, at times ingeniously infinitesimal, conveying thought, memory, and fear, through the black and white Joe, projected cleverly in front of the stage action.

Chris Petridis’ lighting design adds enormously to this piece, and with Ailsa Paterson’s set design, filmic qualities exude from the drab greyness. Joe sits askew to the audience; his projection, enlarging as the piece progresses, a confrontational front-on portrait. Starting as a mid shot, it ends in extreme close-up of Joe’s eyes, which glisten occasionally at the diatribe. The camera transition, with a fleeting focus issue, is shot live. The disquieting result is an intruding and imposed Joe, bringing to mind Doctor Mabuse, and perhaps it’s a type of hypnosis that makes the imprint of his eyes visible beyond the ending.

Eh Joe

Beckett’s four-parter, Footfalls written in 1975, opens with a soundscape of paranormal fleeting that crescendos to uncomfortable levels before revealing May, a laced and gowned, weary and vexed woman, whose existence centres on the repeated pattern of nine steps. Her macabre dance engages wholly, piquing curiosity as to the reasons, which are suggested in a duologue with her elderly mother (Sandy Gore, off stage).

Geordie Brookman directs Pamela Rabe as May in this extraordinary performance. Rabe is magnificent and terrifying. Her bedraggled locks fall lankly, her darkened toes peek ahead, leading her slippers up and down the wooden boards, earnestly yearning and searching. Her face, at times in shadow, takes on ethereal aspects; mouth aghast and slack-jawed, she transforms from a spectre to a lucid storyteller seamlessly. Ben Flett’s lighting, and Paterson’s costume design here is chilling.

Rabe’s precise mix of agoraphobia and compulsion escalates this from metronomic to hypnotic and gripping; the rhythm painful, yet seductive. The light and sound diminish as the piece progresses, and Rabe’s precise diction and masterful dynamics instil fear. It is wonderfully creepy. And then, May is gone. That is, if she was ever even there.

Finally, Peter Carroll brings the lightness of humour with warm human frailty to Krapp’s Last Tape. Nescha Jelk directs this technically fascinating one act play written in 1958, which sees rumination on the chaotic world of Krapp as he attempts a type of order. That this is Krapp’s last tape, gives us an expectation of a finite frame within which to view the miserable old lush. Within this sphere, Carroll shrewdly draws us to Krapp, alone and bubbling with inability to manage; he sits reminiscing amongst the detritus of his life.

Jason Sweeney’s sound design adds a low hum underneath the tape playing, bringing a smart and authentic timbre to proceedings. The tape recordings meld with Carroll’s reflections brilliantly, and add yet another dimension to the themes of regret and our collective inability to live in the moment.

Krapp’s Last Tape is evocative, and still fresh despite being crafted from outdated technology. It speaks clearly of control, frailty, longevity of existence, and loneliness in a material world. The actors take their bows only at the end of the final play, facilitating post-show discussion of the intrinsic connections between the play, presented here as existential vignettes.

Like the best complex productions, State Theatre makes this triptych look easy, delivering ageless, universal truths, with lashings of Beckettian simplicity. This production leaves a lasting impression. Joe’s eyes, May’s gait, and Krapp’s drinking habit may well stay with you for a Beckettian age, so before you can’t go on, go on.

The State Theatre Company of South Australia present the Beckett Triptych until 15 March.