Blank down four walls over planes sheer white eye calm long last all gone from mind. He will curse God again as in the blessed days face to the open sky the passing deluge.
The Emergency Room’s adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s 1969 prose poem Lessness is an intense 40 minutes of existensial soul-searching that will set your mind racing and your heart pounding
Olwen Fouéré has always been something of an enigma to me. Her long bleach blonde hair, her piercing eyes, that deeply resonant voice, earthy and strong, her onstage presence electrifying. And it is that same magnetic presence, that mesmerising voice that draws us in in The Emergency Room theatre company’s adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s Lessness, currently playing in the Project Arts Centre. Watching her perform this abstract prose piece sends the audience on a tumultous journey into sanity and back again. The stillness, the poise, the lack of movement allows the audience to hone in completely on the text and attempt to dissemble the random order of stark imagery presented by Fouéré as she listens through headphones and slowly recounts Beckett’s words in an abruptly staccato manner.
Beckett wrote Sans (the French text from which Lessness is adapted) as a prose piece in 1969 using an aleatoric method to combine sentences. In other words, the order in which the words are composed are one version out of the possible countless permutations the text allows. So was Beckett’s word order a random patching together of images or a deliberately sequenced and highly technical literary masterpiece? Was he trying to alienate his audience? Or was he provoking the audience into making its own meaning, allowing the mind to focus in on important segments of text and attributing significance to the most memorable phrases and images? The latter, I believe. And it is important to remember that Beckett did not intend this work to be performed. However, coming to this text as an audience member is a wholly different experience from reading the text, especially when one, as myself, had not read the text prior to the performance.
Immediately I was reminded of Andy Warhol’s Empire, an unlikely parallel perhaps but one that I couldn’t help but draw. In 1964, Warhol created Empire, an 8 hour film presenting a single image of the Empire State Building. Warhol famously said of his earlier films; “I just switch on the camera and walk away,” but was the premise behind his films as simple as this? Watching Empire, one cannot help but anticipate something more, some movement or motion that will provide some meaning to the experience of sitting there for 8 hours without any plot or action. It insists that the viewer thinks about the nature of film itself and possibly provoke extremes of anger, boredom or postulation. Warhol said of Empire:
I never liked the idea of picking out certain scenes and pieces of time and putting them together, because… it’s not like life… What I liked was chunks of time all together, every real moment….. Usually, when you go to the movies, you sit in a fantasy world, but when you see something that disturbs you, you get more involved with the people next to you…… you could eat and drink and smoke and cough and look away and then look back and they’d still be there.”
In the same manner as Warhol, Beckett, in Lessness is establishing the text as a catalyst for audience participation to create meaning – be it personal and/or interpersonal – the text itself is not the sole source of meaning.
Lessness depicts a small grey, upright body standing among the ruins of a refuge. The atmosphere is bleak, comprising of sand and grey, scattered ruins with no sound to provide solace to the solitary member who is described as a “little body little block genitals overrun arse a single block grey crack overrun.” The world of the text is quintessentially Beckettian: like in Not I, Waiting for Godot and Endgame, it is surreal, sparse and post-Apocalyptic – it evokes the metaphysical longing for something beyond the real world which appears to be the sole cause of human suffering.
The staging of Lessness is perfectly apt. Fouéré sits at a long table, reminiscent of a police interrogation room, accompanied only by a lamp and a flickering screen in the background. Combined with the grey jumpsuit she wears and the eerie music, it hints at the speaker’s incarceration with echoes of hospitals, prisons and police stations in the set design. Devised in collaboration with Fouéré, Kellie Hughes, Sarah Jane Shiels and John Crudden, the stage design and concept is in every sense of the word, truly Beckettian.