A blind violinist is not unhappy enough to die. An old woman dressed in black rocks herself to oblivion at her window. Two men climb in and out of body bags, prodded by a stick, and pull on the same pair of trousers. Three women in hats sit on a bench and gossip about each other while trying to hold hands “in the old way”.
Welcome to the funny old world of Samuel Beckett, whose substantial collection of short, shard-like plays has been raided by Peter Brook in a co-production, Fragments, between Brook’s own Theatre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris and the Young Vic.
Brook has made a point of denying that Beckett is merely a miserable old pessimist, but only a fool would have ever claimed that he was anyway. What you certainly take from this short evening of five pieces performed by three actors – Kathryn Hunter, Marcello Magni and Jos Houben - – in just one hour’s playing time is a sense of wonder at the universe.
Brook pays due respect to “the purity of text” without being too pedantic. The woman in Rockaby does not intone the words from a rocking chair but on a hard-backed one. Her anthem stands out in relief and at the end she stands behind the chair and rocks it herself, like a ventriloquist manipulating a dummy.
In the hilarious Act Without Words II, the two men in sacks are alternately goaded not by an instrument from the wings – there are none in the breeze-block playground of the Young Vic’s Maria studio – but by a descendent white pole, something like a croquet marker. Even more radically “impure” is Houben’s singing under his breath “Fly Me to the Moon” as he struggles with his shirt and brushes his teeth.
Houben is a blissfully funny mime, agile as a gazelle, coiffed like a startled cockerel. He even makes the mutilated cripple of Rough for Theatre I as funny as flippers while Magni stares into the void as the blind violinist. The cripple describes his moment of epiphany as the realisation that, instead of going right round the world, it would be quicker to go home backwards, like Spike Milligan walking backwards for Christmas across the Irish sea.
There’s a slight feeling of being in church, nonetheless, an effect reinforced by the awesome lighting of Philippe Vialatte which transfigures the stage between playlets. A tiny monologue, Neither, written at the time of Footfalls and echoing them, doesn’t work at all. And comedy overrides the impregnated beauty of the bench gossips in Come and Go, a piece rendered with unforgettable lilting lyricism in the Gate Theatre, Dublin, version during the Beckett centenary last year.
- Michael Coveney