Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord
Nuffield Theatre, Southampton
They may be 'Fragments' but it's something of a coup for the Nuffield Theatre to have secured one of only a few UK stagings of these Beckett short works performed by the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord and directed by Peter Brook.
It's the second outing this year for some of these playlets, following the Bite festival at the Barbican earlier this year. On paper it's a thrilling prospect: Beckett directed by one of the world's great directors whose minimalist approach should lend itself perfectly, performed by a crack trio of actors. In practice the results are less satisfying than one would have anticipated.
Part of the problem lies in the approach taken by Brook which, incidentally, mirrors that taken by Deborah Warner towards the playwright's Happy Days at the National Theatre, earlier in the year, and Sean Foley towards Pinter's shorter work in Pinter's People, also earlier this year. Both took the view that the comedy in the work featured had been insufficiently appreciated to date and that a production was needed which brought this to the fore. I didn't see the aforementioned Pinter production which was almost universally savaged and I'm not suggesting Fragments is anything like as crude or misconceived.
I'm minded though of a comment by Pinter in relation to his own work; that it was funny up to a certain point - and beyond that it wasn't. The comedy in both Beckett's and Pinter's, such as there is, emerges out of the bleakness; downplay the bleakness and cruelty and, paradoxically, you kill the humour. This comes out most strongly in Act Without Words Two. Two men ensconced in sacks are, in turn, prodded into life by a goad which descends from above. Marcello Magni struggles to put on his clothes, spits out a mouthful of carrot in disgust and is unrelievedly miserable. Jos Houben, by contrast, is as blithe as Stan Laurel, relishing the same carrot and generally beaming from ear to ear.
The physical skills of both actors, former members of the Theatre de Complicite, are undeniable, but I found it all rather over-egged. Much better is the fifth and final piece, Come and Go, in which three old women gather on a park bench. As soon as one of them absents themselves, one of the other whispers some terrible secret about her to the other. Kathryn Hunter, the other member of the trio, is sublime. She gets two pieces to herself; Last to Go and the better-known Rockaby. In the latter, as with Act Without Words Two, Brook ignores specific stage instructions, and has Hunter speak the lines rather than sit dumbly while an unseen voice intones them. The rocking chair is also absent and yet the piece works. The most substantial of all is Rough for Theatre in which a blind busker is accosted by a single-legged tramp. There are strong echoes here of Godot with the characters' desperate yearning for the consolation of companionship and their rejections of it in spite of it. And with lines like, "I was always as I am; crouched in the dark", and "It's the same stink everywhere", one is minded to say Beckett here very much resembles the image of the writer Brook takes odds with. In the words of P G Wodehouse, there is little danger her in mistaking the man for a sunbeam.
Minimally staged and beautifully lit, Fragments clocks in at around an hour without an interval, I wasn't convinced by the merit of some of the shorter work on show here but I was grateful for the opportunity to experience them.
Reviewer: Pete Wood