Beckett Fourplay: Review of Glorious Thing Theatre Company’s Metafour
If Glorious Thing Theatre Co were looking to choose the four most challenging Beckett plays to stage, Quad, Come and Go, Rockaby and Catastrophe would have to be close to the top. Of course, they could have gone with Not I, Ohio Impromptu and That Time, but hey, it’s Beckett, nothing is easy. These works are rarely staged because they ask a great deal of an audience who is most likely to come away from the experience perplexed or bored, so the risk is always high. To the credit of director Erica Brennan and her quality team of actors (Aslam Abdus-samad, Bodelle de Ronde, Gideon Payten Griffiths, Pollyanna Nowicki, Sophie Littler, Victoria Griene), Glorious Thing has actually managed to put together an engaging evening of theatre that does justice to the lesser known works of the Irish master.
Quad I and Quad II (1981) are movement pieces, with no dialogue or characters to speak of. Originally written for television, it consists of four actors dressed in robes, hunched and silently walking, around and diagonally, across a stage (lit as a ‘quadrant’) in fixed patterns, entering and exiting one after the other. Each hooded figure has their own itinerary; a pattern emerges and collisions are always avoided. In Quad I, each actor wears a different coloured robe (one white, one red, one blue and one yellow) and walks to a musical structure. Quad II – an abbreviated version of Quad I – is performed after a moment’s pause, though the actors are now in white robes, rhythmically slowed and without accompaniment. For certain, it is a strange piece of theatre, but this geometrical mime is somewhat captivating. The piece could be said to depict four figures who pace in search for an ‘Other’, in a world of faceless, emotionless existence where one is simply born, and eventually dies. Is this ‘Other’ a person, or an omnipresent being? The extreme abstraction of the movement appears ritualistic, without purpose almost. Is this what the habit of living is, or will become? Quad is a difficult piece to make sense of, though the ‘sensation’ is arguably the most alluring thing about it. For all this, however, the piece becomes tiresome, through no fault of the actors, but through the incessant repetition of a limited pattern. Audiences ultimately need narrative that personally engages.
Come and Go (1966) is frequently lauded among Beckett scholars as his finest piece, both in regard to its structure and economy. Three women, all friends since childhood, sit together on a bench, a different coloured hat casting a shadow over their eyes. Each has a secret about the other, seemingly pertaining to their failing health. Throughout the play their movements mirror a trinity knot, which is repeated at the end when they hold hands. Ideas of unity are called to mind, thoughts of nostalgia for times past, and a shared history that is interwoven between the three as they protect each other from an uncomfortable truth. Again, striking visuals are created in what was arguably the highlight of the evening.
Rockaby (1981) is possibly the least remarkable of the four pieces, if not also the shortest. An old woman sits in a rocking chair recounting the final moments of her life in the third person. It details her search to find another living soul, before giving up to sit in a rocking chair, as her mother did, and die. Beckett had a couple of pet themes throughout his career, and Rockaby taps into quite a few: ritualized story-telling, a search for meaning, a movement towards death; it just so happens that his other works deal with these ideas in a somewhat more entertaining and insightful manner than this one.
Catastrophe (1982) is a short scene depicting an autocratic Director and his female Assistant putting together the final touches of some kind of dramatic presentation, which consists entirely of a man (The Protagonist) standing still onstage. This is one of only a few Beckett plays that deal with a political theme; the piece can be viewed as an allegory on the power of totalitarianism (political or theatrical), capturing the struggle of those fighting to oppose it (both ‘the people’ and the actor). It is a comical piece, which was performed to great ‘over-dramatic’ success, though one cannot help but feel that it doesn’t entirely fit (thematically) with the other three pieces.
There are a few questions that needs be asked of Glorious Thing, such as why these four plays? Indeed, all of them contain an element of precision, and stillness, which no doubt lent itself to the Suzuki method of acting deployed during rehearsals, but this could be said of almost all of Beckett’s later works and short pieces, of which there is no shortage to choose from. Additionally, the attempt to unify the four pieces with the concept of ‘time’ is a valiant effort, even if it is a bit of a long bow. True, most of Beckett’s plays are interested in time: ideas of recollection and the past are crucial to Come and Go and Rockaby and the precision of timing is certainly central to Quad, even if it isn’t exactly the same thing. The concept of time is harder to find in Catastrophe, which is the outlier here; possibly it was picked to mix things up for the audience. But again, ideas of time can be found in most of Beckett’s work and certainly isn’t unique to these four pieces. Nevertheless, the four have been put together with a conscious effort to turn the show into a cohesive whole (watch out for the Beckett ‘stagehands’), and for the most part it works.
The important thing about Beckett’s later theatre, and what Glorious Thing manages to truly hit home, is that he was the master of creating distinctive and lasting imagery. True, we may not always fully comprehend what we are seeing on stage, but the power of the imagery can never be denied. From the mesmerizing movements in Quad to the final defiant stance in Catastrophe we are left with a collection of images that will not quickly leave us. This is a rare opportunity to see four of Beckett’s lesser known works, and although it may not be a traditional night at the theatre, it is well worth the price of admission. Get along if you can.
Metafour is playing at PACT Theatre until the 15th of August. For more information see: https://gloriousthingtheatreco.wordpress.com/current-work/metafour/