The Gate Theatre first staged the Beckett Festival back in 1991. A series of nineteen plays, the event was an unrivalled success, and went on to stages in London, Australia and New York. Almost ten years later, the Gate’s artistic director Michael Colgan and Alan Moloney of Blue Angel Films have gone one step further, overseeing an RTÉ co-production (in association with Channel 4 and the Irish Film Board) bringing all nineteen plays to film.
Beckett on Film begins at the IFC on Friday 2 February, with all nineteen plays being screened in repertory for a week. The cast of actors and directors involved reads like a who’s-who list of contemporary cinema and theatre: David Mamet directs the late John Gielgud and Harold Pinter in 'Catastrophe'; Julianne Moore stars in Neil Jordan’s 'Not I'; while David Thewlis and Michael Gambon play Clov and Hamm in Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s version of 'Endgame'. It’s a heavyweight, hugely ambitious exercise, and one likely to provoke much discussion amongst those interested in the fundamental differences between theatre and film as means of artistic expression. Samuel Beckett’s plays themselves (well, most of them, anyway) are generally considered superb: theatrically innovative, startling in their minimalism, and deeply moving in their interrogation of themes of alienation, stoicism and despair. Their transition to screen, however, is likely to be a cause of some puzzlement.
Beckett was a notoriously precise writer. He didn’t like journalists very much, and he was particularly scornful of overly intrusive directors and actors. His scripts are extraordinarily fastidious, littered with detailed notes, not only for actors, but also with explicit instructions for lighting and sound cues. These instructions are generally considered inflexible: until his death in 1989, Beckett remained highly-involved in the productions of his plays, and went to inordinate lengths to condemn versions where he felt his text had been meddled with. Even in death, he still managed to assert an influence; when director Deborah Warner transposed five lines of dialogue from one character to another in a 1995 London production of the short play, 'Footfalls', the Beckett estate vowed, "life is too short, but she will not be doing Beckett again".
Beckett’s resistance to interpretation was not based upon any pretension about the purity or sanctity of theatre. He was very interested in other media, and in addition to the plays he wrote (many of which are very short), he also demonstrated an active interest in the possibilities – and limitations – of the newer technologies. 'Embers' and 'All that Fall' were radio plays; 'Eh Joe' and 'Quad' were written as television pieces, and his only film work, which was, in characteristic fashion, simply called 'Film', starred the silent-comedy actor Buster Keaton. The nineteen plays in the Beckett On Film project, however, were originally intended for the theatre and with the directors involved being granted so little licence to interpret at will, the results of this peculiar transition from stage to screen are somewhat of a mixed bag.
Much of Beckett’s theatrical output suggests themes of endless repetition; his characters are shut in urns, 'bottled' in dustbins or buried to their neck in sand. His protagonists tell half-remembered stories, often in an attempt to account for the inexplicable nature of their own existence. In many of the plays, the stage itself acts as a force of coercion; preventing the characters from fleeing, and forcing them to go on with the dialogue. For this reason, some might argue that Beckett’s plays are uniquely theatrical, but the most successful films in the series are those that have managed to construct new visual metaphors within the rigorous confines of the author’s tyrannical stage directions. Anthony Minghella’s version of 'Play' is particularly dazzling; its opening images suggest a purgatorial landscape of infinite dimensions, in which a deadpan Alan Rickman, Juliet Stevenson and Kristen Scott Thomas (each up to their neck in urns) are interrogated by an alarming zoom camera. Also admirable are 'Act Without Words I & II', 'Rough for Theatre I', 'Catastrophe' and 'Ohio Impromptu', the latter which features an eerily haunting performance by Jeremy Irons.
Surprisingly enough, it’s the better-known works that will probably meet with the least favour. Beckett only wrote three ‘full length’ plays: 'Waiting for Godot', 'Endgame' and 'Happy Days'. They are generally considered his most accessible work and, unlike many of the shorts, still retain the more traditional aspects of story telling: they have recognisable (if impoverished) characters, they have concrete (if bizarre) locations – they are grounded in space and time. They are not feature films, however. There’s only so much a director can achieve with camera angles when confronted with a single location and a script that cannot be deviated from by a word. While all three films feature strong performances (particularly Rosaleen Linehan in 'Happy Days'), inevitably they feel like static, academic exercises, lacking the vitality and spark of a live performance. Much of the humour also appears lost: Conor McPherson’s 'Endgame' is convincing in its dramatisation of life in an agonising world where the human race has been virtually reduced to ‘zero’, but the production lacks the grim hilarity that made the play such a powerful experience in the first place.
Overall, Beckett on Film is an admirable and important project, and one that is certainly deserving of your attention. Beckett’s plays are performed rarely enough these days – particularly the shorter ones, which are any theatrical programmer’s nightmare – and the films will be of huge interest to academics, students and anyone already familiar with the work of probably the finest, and certainly the most uncompromising, of Irish dramatists. To the uninitiated, the series offers the opportunity to view superbly-executed versions of Beckett’s work: some of the films may fall short of the experience of live theatre, but in the Beckettian universe, life is always a series of disappointments. These are not films for first dates. They are not films that will offer mild distraction or amusement. They are films that are often quite painful to watch, but in their own subtle way, are very rewarding. You would, however, want to have real courage to endure all nineteen.
The Beckett on Film Festival is at the Irish Film Centre in Dublin from 2 to 8 February. The films will also be shown on RTÉ Television from 18 March to 2 April. Click here for the full television schedule.