Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

THREE PLAYS BY SAMUEL BECKETT

Ruth is Stranger than Richard , Chapter Arts Centre Cardiff , August-11-05
this review first appeared in the Western Mail...

Half-a-century after Waiting For Godot, Beckett should really pose no problems.

And yet, here we are, sitting in the dark, searching for meaning in a production that offers three short plays without interval.

Not a lot of laughs in these three bleak explorations of the human condition, either, as we encounter people trapped by the apparent hopelessness of it all.

But I – and, I guess, older members of the packed audience - regard Beckett as wry, witty and engaging as he tackled his inability to be optimistic, especially when his words were delivered with such understanding by the likes of Billie Whitelaw, Jack Macgowran and Patrick Magee. Ruth is Stranger Than Richard (a company name totally in keeping with this, its third production), however, offers few lifelines.

On Zoe Hewitt’s strikingly expressive stage set of a now-dilapidated and unmodernised room from the Fifties, with a white-noised untuned television, a flickering lamp, a crucifix and grubby torn wallpaper, we get a twenty-first century look back at Beckettian despair from young directors Adele Thomas and Sarah Dodds.

Both seem to want to problematicise the text and to entrance us with sound and vision rather than content – with the effect that we were either mesmerised by the theatricality or frustrated by the inaccessibility.

The most successful for me was Adele Thomas’s take on the least-known play, Words and Music, which took place entirely off-stage – in fact in a kind of virtual reality, where the voices were all pre-recorded. A door into the room opens and we see the shadow of a man, but that’s it.

The play was also the least Beckettian, since a lot of the piece is in fact music (with a crucial performance from the impressive Cardiff New Music Collective), but it got nearest to what I suspect is the holistic ideals of the fascinating Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard, where theatre is seen as part of a range of cultural expression.

It also offered a clue to any Beckett play: the words are best approached as music, something that Billie Whitelaw said nearly thirty years ago after she had performed Not I, the opening play of this triptych. This is one long speech delivered by a spotlit mouth that in Thomas’s production appears, Repulsion-like, from a crack in the wall – but it does, maybe, need a Billie Whitelaw to do it to ensure it does not become a meaningless babble.

Lucy Rivers is a fine young actor but Not I really needs someone more mature in tone and with the experience to pace this deliberately obscure rant – Ms Rivers’s is a bravura performance but we really weren’t given the space to make sense of the complex, breathless confessions of the lady in search of an identity.

Similarly the excellent Nicky Rainsford, who has enough experience with Cardiff Lab to do anti-naturalist theatre, whose pacing up and down as the possibly imagined daughter of an off-stage mother in Sarah Dodd’s Footfalls looked and sounded intriguing but made little sense.

And that, in general, for me is the failing of this ambitious project: while there were some striking images, I was not always convinced that the actors understood their words, or that the directors were concerned that we were offered the opportunity to find any meaning in them.

Instead there seemed a desire to make the plays more abstract, to make any meanings more elusive, when some of us at least want to engage with the admittedly difficult speeches. Or is that just sooo mid-twentieth century ?

Reviewed by: David Adams

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