By Tulis McCall
This is the second show I have seen in as many days that is not a play. On Beckett, with the marvelous Bill Irwin, is, as the title suggests, a talk and a performance. With a bit of tweaking it could be a TED Talk. And a mighty good one.
He tells us: As Irish people sometimes say: We’re not here together long. Irwin is keenly aware of time as he is now 68, and tempus is fugiting even as we share this performance together. Irwin acknowledges that the passages he will be using are known the world over. They have, however, taken hold of him for many, many years. It is this grips, this connection, this fascination that he feels compelled to share with us. He says: Mine is an actor’s relationship to this language – it is also a clown’s relationship to it. The great clown traditions are a lens through which I view – everything. It’s how I operate. Further disclosure: I am a clown.
And let me tell you something about being a clown – it is serious business. What looks like carefree antics come after years of refining and polishing. So yes, Beckett is perfect clown material.
Irwin does not focus on the two most famous plays Endgame and Waiting For Godot (He has appeared in both. I saw him in 2009 as Vladimir with Nathan Lane, John Goodman and John Glover and and in 1988 as Pozzo with Steve Martin, Robin Williams and Murray Abraham). Theses plays are featured but do not take over and suck the oxygen out of the room. Here they are seen as part of the bouquet that is Beckett’s gift to Irwin and Irwin’s gift to us.
The piece on which he spends themes time is Texts For Nothing. I once saw this by the brilliant Joseph Chaikin in Seattle. Chaikin was aphasic after a stroke he suffered in the 80’s. His speech was halting, haunting and laser like. During that production he also played a recording of him reciting the same text as a younger healthier man. I was transported and for the first time felt that I might have a teeny understanding of what Beckett was about.
Texts For Nothing drops a sinker into a man in the middle of being. He is holding himself in his own arms and noticing the vast expanse of life that is himself and everything else around him. Irwin performs three sections of this piece, and with each one he sinks deeper and deeper into the narrator – and we go with him.
An excerpt from Watt, an early novel and the only piece that was originally written in English – the rest were written in French and translated into English by Beckett. Again an examination of a moment in which a man regret nothing an everything. Irwin tells us it has little todo with the rest of the novel, but it jumped out at him begging to be spoken.
The story flags a little as we enter Godot. Irwin is so entranced by this play that he loves and hates that he wants us to appreciate the delicacy, the specificity, the brilliance of the precision. He tells the tale well, but we were waiting for him to get to the performing of it. Irwin is not only earnest, he is mercurial. A dollop of him performing goes a long way in explaining Beckett.
I know more than I did about Samuel Beckett – more than I even knew I could know. But most of all I got to spend 85 minutes with Bill Irwin, which may be the true gift in all of this.
On Beckett – Conceived and Performed by Bill Irwin
WITH Bill Irwin and Finn O’Sullivan
Set designer Charlie Corcoran, costume consultant MarthaTally, lighting designer Michael Gottlieb, and sound designer M. Florian Staab.
At Irish Rep Theatre (132 West 22nd Street) on the Francis J. Greenburger Mainstage, through November 4, 2018.