Stages

Theater, Virtually: Actor/Clown Bill Irwin Re-creates Samuel Beckett’s Irish Voice in On Beckett / In Screen

The other night I watched Bill Irwin repeat his bravura performance of On Beckett in a new version adapted for livestreaming. I saw the original in October 2018 at Irish Repertory Theatre in New York. The theater calls their virtual series performances on screen and they have done both original productions and streamed versions of past productions.

Irish Rep’s other performances on screen this year have included an ingenious production of Conor McPherson’s The Weir and a wondrous version of O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet. Neither of them used actors in Zoom boxes, but featured clever video editing.

When I reserved my Bill Irwin ticket, I assumed it would be a filmed version of the 2018 production of On Beckett, which I saw at the theater in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan.

I’ve been a fan of Irwin’s for years so I would be happy to see and hear him do anything. The first time I saw him was in Moliere’s Scapin in 1997 at the Roundabout Theatre in New York. He played the wily servant who helped his master win his sweetheart. I immediately fell in love with the comic physicality of Irwin’s performance (he directed it too). Then in 2004 he came to Chicago for a one-man performance in Steppenwolf’s Traffic series, where he brought all his tricks, baggy pants, bowler hats and his love of Beckett’s language. He’s a clown who has won a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur “genius” grant, among many other awards. You may have seen him play Mr. Noodle on “Sesame Street” or a therapist on “Law & Order SVU.” He also won a Tony for Best Actor in 2005 playing George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf on Broadway.

His current performance (it runs through November 22, so you still can get a ticket for tonight or tomorrow) begins as we see him walking down 22nd Street, masked and carrying his satchel. He raps on the Irish Rep storefront window and someone lets him in. We follow him back into the mainstage theater (Irish Rep also has a lower level studio theater). He moves the ghost light off the stage and begins his setup.

On Beckett focuses on Irwin’s description of the Irish voice with its lilt and rhythm (“compared to my more flat American voice”) and how that Irish voice prevails in Beckett’s work, despite the fact that he wrote in French. (Born in Dublin, the playwright moved to Paris in 1939 and was active in the French Resistance. He wrote in French after that.)

Image courtesy Irish Repertory Theatre.

“I am not a Beckett scholar or biographer,” Irwin begins. “I have an actor’s relationship with the language.” Irwin reads/performs some less well-known Beckett texts, some from Texts for Nothing, 13 short pieces written in 1950 (“the year of my birth,” Irwin observes). You can read an excerpt here. He also reads from a novel, The Unnamable. Beckett’s writing is all about human life, even though it might seem to involve cruelty and abuse (In Endgame, Hamm’s parents Nagg and Nell live in ashbins).

I’m not going to say Beckett’s work is about existentialism, Irwin says, because that word puts us to sleep. “But survival—that is thrilling.”

Irwin blends his readings and recollections of Beckett with intense physicality. Even his appearance to speak at a lectern becomes physical comedy as neither the lectern nor the microphone obey the speaker’s need for stability.

At some point, of course, the clown’s baggy pants come out and Irwin wears them because “they change the way you move.” Later he adds “industrial strength baggy pants,” which allow his striped socks to show. Throughout the performance, bowler hats and other headgear change the performer’s look and characterizations.

The last half hour of the 90-minute program is devoted to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, a play in which Irwin has performed several times on and off Broadway. Most recently, he and Nathan Lane played Vladimir and Estragon in a 2009 Broadway revival. In 1988, Irwin played Pozzo’s slave, Lucky, in the Mike Nichols-directed production starring Steve Martin and Robin Williams at Lincoln Center Theaters. (I’ve reviewed four versions of Godot recently in Chicago: the 2019 staging at Victory Gardens; the 2018 Druid Theatre visiting production at Chicago Shakespeare; an intriguing staging by Tympanic Theatre with Didi and Gogo as two travelers at the Mexican  border in 2017; and a marvelous Court Theatre production in 2014.)

Beckett always denied that the Godot for whom Didi and Gogo are waiting is God (“if by Godot I had meant God I would [have] said God, and not Godot” nor did he use the French word for God, dieu.) But Irwin notes that the play is full of references to the two thieves on the cross. During the final scenes, both Pozzo and Didi speak of someone “astride of a grave and a difficult birth.” At the end, Gogo says, “And if he comes?” to which Didi replies, “We’ll be saved.”

Whether sitting on a low bench or in motion, Irwin brings life to Beckett’s language and reminds us (those of us who don’t hate the play) why Godot is so full of mystery and magic.

Irwin’s performance is magical and very well-directed for the streaming format while still preserving the feeling of a theatrical production, as one of my friends said after viewing it. It’s directed for camera by M. Florian Staab and Irwin.

You can see Bill Irwin’s On Beckett / In Screen tonight at 7pm Central and tomorrow/Sunday at 2pm Central. Viewing is free but Irish Rep will appreciate your donation. Reserve a ticket here and you’ll receive the Theatre@Home kit in advance and the viewing link about two hours before the show.

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