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.
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.
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
origins of the project
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
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.
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.'
Colgan believes that the passage of time has made Beckett seem less
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.'
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.
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.
to the success of his Beckett festivals, Mr Colgan was able to persuade
the Beckett estate to go along with the film project with
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.'
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.
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.
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 ñ Waiting for Godot, Endgame and Happy Days ñ
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.
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.'
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
even where no Irish accent is heard, Mr Colgan, for one, can hear
the Irish in Beckett's writing.
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.'
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.'
single heaviest demand on the actors, though, was that they should
be word perfect, with not a single variance from Beckett's text.
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!'
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
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'
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
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.
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.
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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