Dublin's venerable theater, The Gate, from which stage many great actors have launched careers with the potent words of great playwrights, has long specialized in presenting the work of Irish-born Samuel Beckett. This week, courtesy of Carolina Performing Arts, members of The Gate appear on the nearly-as-venerable stage of the Historic Playmakers Theatre at UNC-Chapel Hill with two short Beckett plays alternating over four nights. As of this writing, some tickets remain for this unprecedented opportunity on the 3rd and 4th, although the Saturday performance is sold-out.
The first work performed (repeats Nov.4) is a recent adaptation of Beckett's novel, Watt, written during WWII and first published in the 1950s. Actor Barry McGovern, who has immersed himself in Beckett's work for decades, began the process of condensing the 300-page novel for the stage, and young director Tom Creed was commissioned by The Gate to work with McGovern to complete the script, and stage and direct the one-man play, featuring McGovern.
Beckett was roughly contemporaneous with Belgian surrealist painter Rene Magritte, who described his own work as, "visible images which conceal nothing; they evoke mystery and, indeed, when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question, 'What does that mean?'. It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable." In Watt, Beckett deals verbally with the same compulsion to describe the world while forcing continuous awareness of the artwork, no matter how mimetic, as a flat image of the thing that informs it. In "The Treachery of Images," Magritte painted an exceptionally detailed image of a tobacco pipe, but under it wrote "ceci n'est pas une pipe." This is not a pipe. Watt, the play, opens with an analogous declaration: we can't talk about nothing unless we treat it as something.
Actor McGovern delivers this brief prologue to the narrative of a man coming in and going out, with nothing much happening in between, as he divests himself of a Magrittean overcoat and hat, hanging them on a rack upstage from the set's sole chair. As the narrator, the actor may or may not be portraying Watt. But with his spoken words — Beckett's exacting words — he unspools a flow of images of Watt, the riverine flow landmarked by brief mentions of other characters.
It is a remarkable performance, unhurried, unfussy. Watt, the play, is slicingly precise, highly musical in structure and cadence, but utterly verbal in its parries and puns — faithful to Beckett's writing. (As the director, Creed, said in post-performance discussion, the creative team was "respectful" of Beckett — no mash-ups here.) McGovern's voice is rich; all the words are audible and their invisible shapes hang in the air momentarily before being pushed out by others, in much the same way that Watt comes, stays briefly, and is replaced. The form of performance echoes the narrative, giving form to words giving form to nothingness while we pass through time. The river of words runs for an hour and it is too short an hour: one could listen far longer, laughing occasionally at the bleak absurdities, sighing over the uncanny accuracy of descriptions that are not reality.
Watt will be repeated Friday, Nov. 4 at 8 p.m. Endgame will be on stage on Thursday, Nov. 3 at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, Nov. 5 at 8 p.m. (but the latter is sold out). For details, see the sidebar.