Eh Joe

Samuel Beckett
Duke of York's Theatre

Michael Gambon in Eh Joe

Eh Joe has never previously been staged, having been written in 1965 for the small screen. It was first seen in Germany under the writer's direction before making its British debut the following year on US Independence Day, forty years to the week before the premiere of this production. That was in a BBC2 broadcast starring Jack MacGowran (for whom the part of Joe was written) and Sian Phillips.

This may be one for the purists but what raptures it offers them. Eh Joe may only last for less than half an hour, but it allows audiences to enjoy work from four master practitioners, each providing a different ingredient to the recipe.

For the eyes, we have Sir Michael Gambon exposing his soul without uttering a word. He plays the eponymous Joe, a lonely old man rather like Krapp of Last Tape fame. Observing a dressing-gowned man sitting and lying on a cheap iron bed in a drab brown bed-sitter for thirty minutes sounds like a fair alternative to watching paint dry but turns out to be far from it.

The ears are fed by Penelope Wilton, using a mild Irish accent. As Voice, she poetically and rather cruelly delivers the thoughts of a woman who is the last in the long line of Joe's lovers. This omniscient presence may be in "that penny farthing hell you call your mind" or haunting him more ethereally. Either way, she will not allow her victim to hide from his sins. In particular, this infinitely calm visitor makes him relive the suicide, after several attempts, of one of her rejected predecessors.

Those words for the mind, are written with typical Beckettian obscurity but gradually build to a shocking indictment of a man who is now paying for his indiscretions with loneliness and the knowledge that death and whatever its aftermath may be are not too far off.

This version, first seen at the Gate in Dublin last year, is directed by cult Canadian film director Atom Egoyan, best known for works such as Ararat and The Sweet Hereafter. His background is apparent as this feast does not seem all that stagy and is made by the counter pointing of the spot lit Joe with a projection of his head and shoulders twenty feet high, rather like a silent, suffering Big Brother (Orwellian, not Channel 4).

In this way, Egoyan forces us to observe every facial movement and tic of a great actor, whose concentration and identification with his character must be perfect for thirty minutes, twice every night.

As a pre-dinner appetiser, the seven o'clock performance is perfect, providing food for thought and thoughts for the food. This is a great opportunity to enjoy the combined efforts of a quartet of greats without any chance of extended boredom. An unusual but worthwhile hors d'oeuvre rather than a full blown steak entrée, Eh Joe is highly commended.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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