“fiercely and fearlessly full of rich dialogue that explores some of the deepest questions of human existence”
“The Sunset Limited”, by the American novelist, playwright and screenwriter Cormac McCarthy, was originally published as ‘A Novel in Dramatic Form’. What distinguishes this from a play is uncertain. What is certain, though, is that the award-winning writer’s unique style infuses each word and phrase with customary flamboyant bleakness that holds our attention to an almost uncomfortable degree.
Devoid of any real theme or plot, it is fiercely and fearlessly full of rich dialogue that explores some of the deepest questions of human existence. In the past, McCarthy has admitted that he respects only authors who “deal with issues of life and death”. Indeed, his nihilistic, almost existential approach can be off-putting on the surface, but his command of language and colloquial style effortlessly draw us into this short, one act play. And once we are in, what keeps us there – in this case – are the performances of Gary Beadle and Jasper Britton who play the two nameless characters.
Referred to only by the colour of their skin, Beadle is labelled ‘Black’, while Britton is ‘White’. All the action (or inaction) takes place in Black’s sparse, run-down tenement building. Black is an ex-convict while White is a professor. Sounds predictable and insensitively black and white, but any potential stereotyping is rapidly subverted and quashed. Black is cheerful; an optimist and evangelical Christian while White is an irredeemably miserable atheist. It becomes clear in the opening scene that Black has saved White from throwing himself under a train. (The title of the play derives from the name of the passenger train – The Sunset Limited – that travels from New Orleans to Los Angeles). Black has taken White back to his apartment and taken it upon himself to save White from any further attempts at suicide.
Beadle and Britton captivate throughout as we watch them steer their way through the ensuing debate. Nothing happens, beyond drinking coffee, or Black serving up a dish of reheated Creole cuisine from his fridge. But we are shaken to the core by their two opposing worlds, and our ideas are shattered by the crashing waves of their argument. Just as we think we are safely buoyed up by Black’s rolling tide of positivity, we are dangerously dragged back by the undertow of White’s nihilism. It is a raging debate, but comical too. “I long for the darkness” utters White, “If I thought that in death, I would meet the people I knew in life, I don’t know what I’d do. That would be the ultimate nightmare”. Britton beautifully seizes on the savagery of this pessimism but with a deadpan glee that brings out the humour. Beadle’s bible bashing counter arguments come with as many absurd and self-deprecating twists that remind us that we are being entertained rather than preached at.
The two actors’ natural performances transform McCarthy’s writing into a kind of poetry. Director Terry Johnson pitches them together in a slow dance that keeps the rhythm flowing and echoing in our heads long after we leave the theatre. The questions it has kicked up refuse to settle. After all – there are no real answers for them to settle on. But we, the audience, have the easier task: we can safely discuss these questions of life and death in the bar after the show, leaving the characters on the stage to make the life or death decisions.
The outlook is pitch-black and harsh, and seemingly a dead end, but nowhere else is a journey to nowhere such a pleasure.
“Nunn’s inspired direction and choices, and the consistently wonderful acting, gives the overall effect of this being one three act play rather than three one act plays”
Kicking off the new decade at the Jermyn Street Theatre is a trio of short, one act plays by Samuel Beckett. A master of solitary minimalism, Beckett wrote many to choose from. The three, compiled and directed by Trevor Nunn for the “Beckett Triple Bill” are, on the surface, quite different from each other and originally written for different media (the stage, television and radio). But Nunn has picked out a common thread of memory and of looking back, allowing them to sit together in illogical harmony as an intimate and seamlessly crafted trilogy. In each play the protagonists are reviewing their lives through their refracted memories. ‘We’ve never been who we think we were once, and we only remember what never happened’. I don’t remember where that aphorism comes from, of course, but it defines the fragile fabric of nostalgia that we all share, and that Beckett so expertly writes about.
“Krapp’s Last Tape” opens the evening. The title of the play seems obvious, that what we are witnessing is the recording of Krapp’s final tape, yet it could also just be his most recent. It is Krapp’s sixty-ninth birthday and he is playing a tape he recorded thirty years earlier, listening with a mixture of contempt and regret. At times he cannot remember the meaning of words he used to use and has to look them up in the dictionary. Afterwards he removes the tape, loads a fresh one and starts recording his older voice, a voice that is scathing about the man he used to be and the man he has become. James Hayes, as Krapp, is captivating; holding the audience tightly in his grasp, even through his long moments of silence. We are as attentive as he is. As he listens, we listen too, and Hayes has the ability to draw us right into the character’s mind.
“Eh Joe” takes us into slightly darker territory. Originally written for television, it translates perfectly to the intimacy of the space. Simon Nicholas’ live, close-up back projection of Joe’s face pays homage to Beckett’s original specifications, but here it is very much a backdrop. We barely notice the camera moving in closer. All our attention is on Niall Buggy who utters not a single word as Joe. Buggy relies on expression alone, and some real tears, as he reacts to the voice in his head. While Buggy is seen and not heard, Lisa Dwan, as The Voice, is heard and not seen. Dwan’s voice is barely above a whisper but it creates a storm in the mind of Joe. Each word a knife going in. A pause for breath, then in again.
Buggy returns for the final round in “The Old Tune”, teaming up with David Threlfall to play Gorman and Cream respectively; two old-timers reunited after many years. Beckett’s radio play injects a small dose of much needed humour to the evening. Buggy and Threlfall are faultless in their portrayal of two bewildered men lost in a modern world that is passing them by – quite literally too with Max Pappenheim’s sound design littering the stage with passing motor cars. The elderly couple remember a time before cars. They remember a lot, but forget just as much too; disagreeing with each other’s memories in a kind of prose version of Lerner and Loewe’s ‘I Remember It Well’. Beckett’s dialogue, often absurd in the extreme, always manages to contain universal themes that we recognise and relate to. The exaggerated nostalgia that provides the comedy is timeless and it still pervades today, having influenced many writers on the way, most noticeably Monty Python’s ‘Yorkshiremen Sketch’.
“Beckett Triple Bill” is an evening of contrast and similarity. I initially set out to appraise each short piece separately, but Nunn’s inspired direction and choices, and the consistently wonderful acting, gives the overall effect of this being one three act play rather than three one act plays.