As I was exiting the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse after watching The Beckett Shorts, I heard someone say, “What was that supposed to mean?” This comment probably sums up every Samuel Beckett experience—whether you’re reading his works or watching his plays. But seeing Beckett performed is a very different experience than just reading his plays, which often don’t make sense on paper alone. Directed by Adam Paolozza, the U of T Drama Centre performed five of Beckett’s short plays: Not I, Act Without Words II, A Piece of Monologue, Come and Go, and That Time.
When the audience first entered the theatre, we were directed to stand in a dark room with one dim light in the middle. We stood for a few minutes before Not I began. I got the impression that this was less like a play and more like an art installation. Suddenly, the lights went out completely and 10 illuminated mouths appeared on two opposite sides of the room. We continued to stand in the middle. The mouths all spoke at the same time. They chanted phrases such as, “Tiny little thing…tiny little girl… into this…out into this…before her time…”
The whole performance was a profoundly disturbing experience, but it deliberately created this effect. The multiple mouths all tell one story, which appears to be a recollection of one woman’s past. The story is repeated several times, starting with a girl born prematurely to unknown parents. The girl had been mute her whole life, but the play leads her to have a voice. The original Beckett script only had one mouth, but the choice to have 10 mouths in this production created a sense of collective experience, despite the loneliness and isolation portrayed in the story.
After Not I, we were seated. A plastic curtain was used on stage, which was an effective way to highlight the emptiness and meaningless in each play. The curtains opened, and Act Without Words II began. This play, as the title suggests, is a mime performance. Two characters, Caleb Shoihet and Ross Slaughter, sit in two separate sacks. The stage was empty; no props were used, but everything was covered with dust. A goad suddenly enters the stage on wheeled support and pokes the first sack. The first character wakes up, gets dressed, eats a carrot, spits it out, prays, and then goes back to his sack. The same thing happens with the other sack. The character wakes up, takes a shower, brushes his teeth, and gets dressed —but this character does it with more energy and enthusiasm than the other one. Act Without Words II represents the monotony of routine. Every day, we wake up to do the same things, and then we go back to sleep. The different speeds and different levels of excitement also make us aware of the passage of time.
The remaining plays followed a similar pattern of absurdity. They all featured a post-apocalyptic world, in which language is meaningless and isolation prevails as the dominant emotion. I felt as if the characters were constantly trying to tell each other things, to speak, and to communicate, but they always failed to get their message across. Theatre of the Absurd pushes the limits of absurdity in reality so that we’re faced with whatever makes us uncomfortable. Specifically, Beckett’s plays convey a dark image of the world.
Despite the minimal dialogue, the cast of The Beckett Shorts conveyed these ideas with their powerful use of body language. Overall, the evening offered an astute portrayal of Beckett’s absurdist themes.
The Beckett Shorts ran from March 8 to March 18 at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse.