“I find working with Beckett to be a joyous experience. Not the individual moments, this or that poignant passage, but his skill and genius is so, so graceful, and uplifting. I’m constantly inspired by it.”
That’s Conor Lovett, currently touted as one of the world’s foremost Beckett specialists. He has just left Brisbane after performing Beckett’s First Love as part of the Brisbane Festival. He’s one half of the Gare St Lazare Players Ireland, an impressive decade long collaboration between himself and director Judy Hegarty Lovett.
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Next month, October, they bring their production of The Beckett Trilogy to the Melbourne International Arts Festival, Thursday 14 October to Sunday 17. It’s an epic solo performance of Beckett’s tryptic prose study of solipsism and dislocation, the three novels, Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnameable.
Lovett has performed 19 Beckett roles in 24 Beckett productions internationally. This year alone, he tells me, he is performing in six different Beckett productions, as well as an adaptation of Moby Dick. I asked him about how they came to gluing the Beckett trilogy together.
“Judy and I first did Molloy back in 1996, as a solo show, you know, and we took it to Edinburgh. The way we did it was to use sections from early in the novel as an introduction to this character of Molloy. Then later we did Malone Dies, and that one we did beginning, middle and end. It was then we started to think of doing the trilogy, and so when it came to The Unnameable, that was that same, beginning, middle and end structure.”
The books themselves are easy enough to describe, but difficult to capture. Molloy is the absurd journey in two parts of a crippled tramp, a statement, sort of, on human weakness and the self-debasing progress of yearning. In Malone Dies, the narrator is dying, we suppose, and to pass the time he tells stories, stories in which he seeks himself, as in a mirror, for proof of his continued existence. In The Unnameable, the stories stop but the search for existence goes on.
“We first performed it as a trilogy in 2001.”
This show runs for a goodly three hours, which, although a massive beast for a solo performer, is not nearly enough time to get in every page of all three books. What process, then, do the Lovetts use to condense Beckett’s prose for the stage? An adaptation or an edit?
“It’s not an adaptation; we use only Beckett’s words. Where we link between the paragraphs, the sections, you know, it’s our distillation of it, but it’s Beckett’s words. We wouldn’t need to use anything else.”
Then how does the prose become performance? Beckett wrote these works as novels, after all, not as plays.
“Well that’s the thing,” says Lovett. “I think telling it as a story, as if it were your own story, is how I do it. I tell it as though it were a story I was telling for the first time. And from that, gestures, accents and drama are added. Judy and I worked hard on finding that original rhythm, so that it plays almost like a piece of music, like singing a song, something you can modulate through the materials.”
The prose of Beckett in these three novels, as much as in any of his other prose works, is the mapping of an interior world, works mired within the skulls of his characters. How do you outwardly project that kind of solipsistic fiction, which is constantly turning back on itself, how do you find the gestures, the stage language for that kind of interiority?
“The starting point for us, for Judy and I, in making the distillation, in thinking about how it might work on the stage, is thinking about where Beckett addresses the reader directly. It’s a literary device, yes, but this speaking directly to the audience is also a theatrical device, so like in Molloy, where Beckett directly addresses the reader:
For I no longer know what I am doing, nor why, those are things I understand less and less, I don’t deny it, for why deny it, and to whom, to you, to whom nothing is denied?
“And then, it’s not a, a dramatic quality in the book, but there is an ‘orality’ in his writing—as if the words were being spoken aloud, as if they were surprising the author:
The forms are many in which the unchanging seeks relief from its formlessness. Ah yes, I was always subject to the deep thought, especially in the spring of the year. That one had been nagging at me for the past five minutes. I venture to hope that there will be no more, of that depth.
“And then from that, translating it to the stage, it becomes almost like any other human event, like a man telling a story, about how he was at the bank and this and that happened—”
But does it work? Or work too well? One of the most interesting things in Beckett, and certainly his riff on failure is something of a cliché now, but, still, to me Beckett’s novels are most interesting where they don’t work, where especially there’s a failure to communicate, where there’s the quality of, not ineffability, but of inarticulateness. How can you convey this kind of failure while maintaining the qualitative difference between his prose work and his plays? With suggestive gestures and a sign-song rhythm is there a risk that the performance will be too effective?
“I think so, but one of the ways we can fail best, if you like, is to bring the inarticulate out. One of the, I guess, advantages that you have in theatre that you don’t have when reading a novel is time. So, for instance, you can use silences, for example in Malone Dies, where there is this waiting for time.”
I ask Lovett where The Beckett Trilogy sits for him as a Beckett specialist.
“Well, 2006 was the last time we performed the trilogy, and I’m really excited by that, for Judy and myself, because, yes, we have out individual favourites, but I think our combined favourite is the trilogy, because I do get that genuine feeling of joy from the scope of the work. I’m also really looking forward in Melbourne to having a week of shows. You know, often festivals or cities will only book us for one night or two, it’s rare that we get to work on something over a whole week.
“These two works that I’m doing in Australia [First Love and The Beckett Trilogy], they’re both solo works and they both have a different feel, but I am really enjoying the feeling of facility that I have with the work. We did First Love in a very intimate space and I’m really enjoying being able to savour the feeling of progression that I have with my work right now.”
Details: The Beckett Trilogy runs October 14 – 17. Tickets available through the Melbourne International Arts Festival website.
Director Judy Hegarty Lovett Performer Conor Lovett
Text Compiled by Conor Lovett and Judy Hegarty Lovett from the novels Molloy, Malone Dies & The Unnamable by Samuel Beckett
Photos: Ros Kavanagh