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Beckett on Film

Sixteen of the nineteen plays in the theatrical canon of Samuel Beckett have now been filmed, as part of the RTE/Channel Four/Irish Film Board Beckett on Film Project, and nine of them premiered at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
Producer Michael Colgan told me that the genesis of the project came, not surprisingly, from the theatre, since he was responsible for bringing all of the plays to Dublin’s Gate Theatre in 1991, and has subsequently toured many of them abroad. Committing them to film is a way of not having to keep doing them on stage. However, he is conscious of the responsibility involved, because the rights to film were given by the Beckett estate only on the understanding that this would be a one-off venture, so if it is messed up in any way there will be no chance to do it differently later on. Also, these films may well be the only versions of some of the plays that a sizeable proportion of their audience ever sees, so it is important to do them justice. That said, he is chary of the term ‘definitive’, because every time the plays are performed in a theatre they will still be open to the possibility of change. But he does accept that the film versions are unique.




Each film stands in its own right as an thoroughly individuated reading by the director in question. Most of the shorter pieces were shown first at the festival, in one sitting, and began with the last play Beckett wrote, which was the first to be filmed, Damien O’Donnell’s take on ‘What Where’. It features Sean McGinley as Bam, who controls Bem, Bim and Bom, who are all played - thanks to some special effects not possible in the theatre - by Gary Lewis. A sinister atmosphere prevails, as Bam sends the others off in turn, to be given ‘the works’, and so confess to an unnamed crime.
Sir Richard Eyre directs Penelope Wilton as the old woman in ‘Rockaby’, who sits in her rocking chair while calling on her own recorded voice - the voice of memory - to speak.
David Mamet’s ‘Catastrophe’ has Harold Pinter as the arrogant director and Rebecca Pidgeon as his fawning assistant, who set about arranging The Protagonist, played by the late John Gielgud in his last ever on-screen performance. One of the few Beckett plays with a detectable political subtext, it was written as part of the campaign to have Vaclav Havel released from prison.
Two grand old Dublin comic actors, David Kelly and Milo O’Shea, are sparing partners in Kieron J Walsh’s ‘Rough for Theatre 1’, as a blind man and a lame man, respectively. The only one of the series shot in black and white, it features another mutually dependent pair, like Vladimir and Estragon in ‘Waiting for Godot’ and Hamm and Clov in ‘Endgame’, who, although they are probably the last men alive, still cannot agree to help one another. Walsh says he chose it because he thought it the funniest and most accessible play he found in the Collected Plays, reminding him of a Laurel and Hardy film he once saw, and he is a big Laurel and Hardy fan. Beckett revelled in the possibilities offered by burlesque, music hall and farce, and his one attempt at making a film, entitled ‘Film’, starred Buster Keaton.
Anthony Minghella’s ‘Play’, more than any of the other offerings, uses compositional resources particular to the medium, with the camera functioning as the spotlight does in the theatrical productions, focusing on the faces of Alan Rickman, Juliet Stephenson and Kristin Scott Thomas, as they enact their own spin on the eternal adulterous triangle. But Minghella’s camera also pulls back, jumps and pans, with visual and aural feedback, in a way that did not entirely please the Beckett estate. When permission was given it was also stipulated that not a word or stage direction would be changed, and while the text remains intact here, liberties are taken with camera angles. But the visually stunning results justify bending the rules.
Conor McPherson’s direction of ‘Endgame’ is a consistently thoughtful interpretation of a classic work, with fantastic performances from Michael Gambon and David Thewlis. Harking back to ‘Catastrophe’, McPherson observed that without Beckett there would be no Pinter, and without Pinter there would be no Mamet, and without Mamet there would be no Tarantino. However, despite the bleak vision and gallows humour of ‘Endgame’, McPherson assured us that it was written, like most of Beckett’s work, out of love for humanity.
Neil Jordan directs Julianne Moore as the disembodied mouth delivering its stop/start monologue in ‘Not I’.
Fellow Canadians Patricia Rozema and Atom Egoyan have in common the fact that they both directed their favourite Beckett plays. In pondering whether Beckett intended Winnie to be buried up to her chest, and later her neck, in a room or in a desert expanse, Rozema chose the latter option, and ‘Happy Days’ was shot in Tenerife, 3000 feet above sea level, beside a volcano. Rosaleen Lenihan, with Richard Johnson as Willie, never misses an opportunity to highlight the humour, while also capturing the underlying pathos, all this despite suffering altitude sickness and smarting eyes from blowing sand.
When I interviewed Egoyan, who fought hard for ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’, he told me that he first read the play aged thirteen, and thought of his father, who made recordings on open reel for most of his life. “It helped me make sense of the nightmare of this compulsive activity my father was engaged in.” He acknowledges that his first short, made when he was eighteen, ‘Howard in Particular’, is an openly plagiarised interpretation of ‘Krapp’. Now 39, Egoyan is the same age Krapp was when he made the tape he listens to in the play as a disillusioned 69-year-old, with contempt for the younger self he hears. “This is the purest expression of all my work as a director, which is the interpretation of performance and text.” John Hurt employs his distinctive vocal range to its fullest, rendering Beckett’s words all the more potent and profound, in what is the most autobiographical of the writer’s dramatic works.
Filming is now at an advanced stage, and all nineteen films will be completed by the autumn. The entire slate of the 1969 Nobel Prize winner’s plays will total eleven hours of programming. Still to come are Damien Hirst’s one minute ‘Breath’, Walter Asmus’ ‘Waiting for Godot’ and ‘Footfalls’, Karel Reisz’s ‘Act Without Words 1’ and Enda Hughes’ ‘Act Without Words 2’, among others. Colgan’s fellow producer, Alan Moloney of Parallel Films, is delighted with the enthusiastic response so far, the most up-front of his career to date, with two American distributors vying to pick the project up.

First published in Film Ireland














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