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Beckett on Film

Interview : Michael Colgan

The project
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Finding new audiences for alienation

This is an edited version of an interview with Michael Colgan by Alan Riding, which appeared in the
New York Times on 11 June 2000.


If the death of celebrated artists is often followed by diminished interest in their work, Samuel Beckett has been luckier than most. He did not have to wait a generation for an admirer to find him a new public. In Michael Colgan, the artistic director of Dublin's Gate Theatre, he had a ready apostle. Indeed, a Beckett revival was already in the works even before the Irish-born playwright died at 83 in Paris in 1989.

'Beckett had been unjustifiably neglected, which perhaps explains my missionary zeal,' said Mr Colgan, who can boast of having known Beckett in his final years. 'He was the greatest playwright of the 20th century, he won the Nobel literature prize in 1969, he was very famous, yet his work has been one of the least known.' Well, perhaps a decade ago.

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The origins of the project

In 1991, the Gate Theatre presented Beckett's 19 stage plays along with a handful of his radio plays in a Beckett festival in Dublin. In 1996, Mr Colgan took much the same package to the Lincoln Center Festival in New York. Five of the plays were presented in a mini-festival in Melbourne, Australia, in 1997. And last year, with the addition of more extensive poetry and prose readings, all 19 plays travelled to the Barbican Centre in London. Everywhere, they were enthusiastically received.

Thus encouraged, Mr Colgan has decided to take his proselytising a step further by carrying Beckett from stage to screen. Because this means more than simply filming theatre productions, he has turned to renowned directors with movie experience like David Mamet. And because his aim is to reach a wider audience, he has been eager to use popular actors with proven appeal to moviegoers and television viewers, like Julianne Moore and Jeremy Irons. More fundamentally, he is convinced that the public is now ready for Beckett.

This was certainly not always the case. From the moment Waiting for Godot marked Beckett's switch from poetry and fiction to playwriting in 1953, his sparse language, absurd situations and minimalist staging exercised enormous influence on Western theatre. Yet while he quickly built up a following, there was anything but agreement on the meaning of his plays. Traditional theatregoers often found them puzzling, sometimes depressing. Even with friendly critics, Beckett once lamented, 'It's all misunderstanding.'

Mr Colgan believes that the passage of time has made Beckett seem less intimidating.

'It's the same plays but different audiences,' said the intense, chain-smoking theatre manager. 'In the 1960s, people would come out of the theatre asking who Godot was. Today, no one cares who Godot was. In the 1960s, Beckett was treated reverentially. Today, people are overcoming the idea that he is bleak and inaccessible. What we now see more is the humour in his plays.'

To match his own theatre experience, Mr Colgan sought out an Irish movie producer, Alan Moloney, as his partner in the project. Their company, Blue Angel, in association with Tyrone Productions, a subsidiary of Riverdance, is producing the project along with RTÉ, the Irish radio and television network, and Britain's Channel 4. In New York, WNET (Channel 13) will present the plays next season when it inaugurates its new PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) drama series 'Stage on Screen'. There are also plans to show them on the large screen – individually or in groups, since they are of drastically different lengths at film and theatre festivals, and eventually to release them as videos. The cost of the project has been kept to about $6 million because the directors and actors have accepted nominal fees. Some even begged for a chance to participate.

Before directors and actors were chosen, Mr Colgan had a major obstacle to overcome. More than most playwrights, Beckett included in his texts highly detailed instructions on how they should be staged, directed and performed (two of them, Act Without Words I and Act Without Words II, involve only directions to the performers). In fact, during Beckett's lifetime, he directed the first production of almost every new play. And since his death, the Beckett estate, managed by his nephew and executor, Edward Beckett, has done its best to ensure that his wishes are respected.

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Conditions and respect

Thanks to the success of his Beckett festivals, Mr Colgan was able to persuade the Beckett estate to go along with the film project – with conditions.

'We worked out a bible to give the directors,' Mr Colgan recalled. 'No cuts, no gender-bending, and if Beckett says 'beach' there should be a beach. We didn't want adaptations or 'inspired by' stuff. We needed directors with a sense of the importance of the text. That's why we sought out writer-directors. We let them choose their own casts, but this project is not actor-led, it is director-led.'

By ceding the right to pick the casts, the producers were also hoping that the directors would bring aboard well-known actors with whom they had worked in movies. And in several cases this worked. Julianne Moore, for instance, had starred in Neil Jordan's most recent film, The End of the Affair. Similarly, Alan Rickman and Juliet Stevenson appeared in Anthony Minghella's first feature film, Truly, Madly, Deeply, while Kristin Scott-Thomas had a lead role in his Oscar-winning movie The English Patient. By contrast, Jeremy Irons had not worked in movies with Tom Stoppard, who was originally to direct him as both Reader and Listener in Ohio Impromptu. But when Mr Stoppard dropped out because of other commitments, he was replaced by Charles Sturridge, who had directed Mr Irons in the acclaimed television adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited.

Posing a greater challenge to directors than casting, though, is how to translate Beckett to the screen without changing a single word of text. Camera movements, editing cuts and above all close-ups naturally create a different visual narrative from that seen in a theatre. But because film is a more literal medium than theatre, where a single light on a darkened stage is enough to create a mood, some directors elaborated on Beckett's proposed staging.

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The Irish accent

So was Beckett an Irish playwright? He spent almost his entire adult life in Paris; there was a distinct Left Bank existentialism to much of his work; he wrote many of his plays first in French, and he did not visit Ireland in the last 21 years of his life. His best-known plays Waiting for Godot, Endgame and Happy Days are still regularly performed in France, but the Beckett festivals and now the Beckett Film Project are evident attempts to reclaim him as an English-language writer, and an Irish one at that.

'I made sure everyone had an Irish accent,' said Conor McPherson, director of Endgame. 'The English that Beckett wrote is full of Irishisms, full of Irish inflections. Michael Gambon was born in Dublin, so that was easy. David Thewlis is from Blackpool, but he picked up a south Dublin accent very quickly.'

In several films where the movie directors are not Irish, a sense of place is provided by well-known Irish actors: Sean Foley in Act Without Words I, directed by Karel Reisz; Rosaleen Linehan in Happy Days, directed by Patricia Rozema; Sean McGinley and Gary Lewis in What Where, directed by Damien O'Donnell; and Susan Fitzgerald and Jane O'Hara in Footfalls and Johnny Murphy and Barry McGovern in Waiting for Godot, both directed by Walter Asmus.

Yet even where no Irish accent is heard, Mr Colgan, for one, can hear the Irish in Beckett's writing.

'When he translated from French into English, he didn't translate, he wrote a new play,' Mr Colgan said. 'And then there's the humour. It's very Irish.'

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Punishing the cast

Performing Beckett on stage or on screen, though, is no joke. 'Beckett is a punisher of actors,' Mr Jordan said. 'He always confines them in the most ridiculous places – in urns, in garbage cans, up to their necks in sand. It's like he has an extreme resistance to the basic reality of theatre, which is the actor.'

The single heaviest demand on the actors, though, was that they should be word perfect, with not a single variance from Beckett's text.

'With my own scripts, I'm happy to allow an actor to improvise,' Mr McPherson said. 'Here, accuracy was the letter of the law. I'd think I had a wonderful take, then the script person would say one word was in the wrong order. Oh, no!'

Mr Jordan said that Not I took on meaning only when it was delivered continuously, so he filmed five successive takes of Ms Moore's performance one afternoon at Shepperton Studios near London. And she stumbled only once, he said with admiration.

While Mr Minghella was filming Play, his approach was to do repeated takes of scenes, or rather lines. He did so, he said, because he plans to 'cut, cut, cut' during editing, but also because he wanted to push – 'persecute' was his word – the actors toward an almost zombielike minimalism. Hovering beside Ms Scott-Thomas, for example, he kept asking for take after take with such comments as 'too much acting' or 'faster, drier' or 'too much emotion'

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Thrill and surprise

Yet for all the difficulties involved, actors and directors seemed thrilled to be spreading the word of Beckett. Mr Hurt, who before London had not acted in a Beckett play, said he was fascinated by how the playwright 'constantly finds a way of putting his finger on things that are universal'. Mr Jordan, who once directed Waiting for Godot as a 20-year-old, said Beckett had been 'maddeningly influential' over the language of film as well as theatre. Mr Minghella said he was happy to have done something for its own sake without worrying about 'money, marketing, cassettes going out to Academy members'.

That said, the film project remains a thoroughly original venture, one that will inevitably influence how Beckett's plays are perceived. And even if its audiences are limited, it contains the jewel of Sir John Gielgud's last recorded performance in Catastrophe, in the non-speaking role of Protagonist, as he is being prepared to go onstage by a theatre director and his assistant.

Mr Mamet and Mr Pinter excluded outsiders from the set at Shepperton, but Mr Colgan was there on 14 April, the second day of shooting, which happened to be Sir John's birthday.

'He was very frail on the set, but mentally he was very alive,' Mr Colgan remembered. 'I spent 45 minutes with him in his dressing room and we had a good chat. I asked him how he felt to be working on his 96th birthday. His reply was pure Gielgud. 'Well,' he said softly, 'it's a great surprise.'


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