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Theatre in Review: On Beckett/In Screen (Irish Repertory Theatre Online)

Bill Irwin. Photo: Courtesy of the Irish Rep

Bill Irwin, on an empty stage, declaiming and performing comic bits to an empty theatre: What could be more Beckettian than that?

The adjective, of course, evokes Samuel Beckett, whose characters exist on an endless vista containing nothing; they stand there, endlessly bored -- rendered immobile, really -- while watching time fly by, railing against a vast cosmic absence that may be named God or Godot or nothing at all. To perform Beckett in a deserted theatre during a pandemic is, in a sense, to push the author's world view to its logical conclusion; his words cascade and shimmer and sting and cry out to the unanswering heavens, asking for -- what?

It's a question that has preoccupied Irwin, who, by his own account has been wrestling with Beckett for the entirety of his adult life. He has performed in many of the playwright's works, including two high-profile productions of Waiting for Godot and another of Endgame. And, as he notes, there is a certain overlap between his baggily dressed, top-hatted clown persona and some of Beckett's seedy tramps; there's a reason why comics from Bert Lahr to Buster Keaton to Robin Williams to Nathan Lane have appeared in Beckett works. After all, comedy is at its funniest when rooted in despair, and what Beckett provides in abundance is laughter that emanates from just this side of the grave.

On Beckett/In Screen is the report of one actor's deep engagement with the playwright. Irwin doesn't philosophize nor does he pontificate. He pronounces the word "existentialism" exactly once, stretching it out to the breaking point before dismissing it altogether like a particularly noxious pest. Instead, he recounts his long affair -- a love/hate relationship, by his own admission -- with writing that has challenged, appalled, and inspired him, sometimes keeping him up all night.

Irwin is particularly intrigued by Texts for Nothing, reading from several of them with virtuosity; in truth his interpretations of these stream-of-consciousness torrents is, at times, a little hyperactive for my taste, but you cannot say he hasn't investigated each word thoroughly. He also muses on the oddity of a quintessentially Irish author penning his most significant works in French, weighs in on the endless debate about the correct pronunciation of "Godot," and regales us with tales from the trenches of Beckett productions. And when he puts on the clown costume that sends every bone in his body in its own distinct direction, the result is pure comic bliss.

I had mixed emotions about On Beckett when it played the Irish Rep a couple of years ago; interestingly, it seems to gain something in an online presentation. The star's manner is even more personal, even confidential, and his handling of some notoriously difficult speeches seems even more deft. His physical comedy bits are pitched skillfully for the smaller screen. (Irwin co-directed the piece with M. Florian Staab, the able composer and sound designer.) Once again, an Irish Rep production has been thoughtfully produced for online, with Charlie Corcoran's spare scenic design and Michael Gottlieb's lovely and infinitely sensitive lighting constituting major assets.

Then again, perhaps it's that after months of lockdown, the sheer absurdity of the pandemic -- the halt to daily routines, the nagging uncertainty, the roiling controversies, and, most of all, the hundreds of thousands of needless deaths -- leaves one peculiarly open to Beckett's bleak vision. We continue to wait for Godot, whatever or whoever he is, and we remain unclear how long we must wait and what the end of waiting will mean. That Bill Irwin can set one to thinking such thoughts while making one laugh is proof that he is a great artist.

On Beckett/In Screen runs only through November 22. Go to https://irishrep.org/show/irish-rep-online-2020/on-beckett-in-screen/. --David Barbour

(20 November 2020)

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