The dead letter of the law THE MOMENT WHEN . . . Paul Taylor recognised that `respect for the text' is a t heatrical death sentence

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An evening out at the Garrick Theatre in London's West End: a seasoned theatregoer could proceed through the drill blindfold.

The Tube to Charing Cross, or the taxi (or the parking problem); then the pre-show glass of warmish white wine - the nuisance of the crush in the bar offset by the comfortable expectation of a statutory two to three hours in the company of say John Godber (whose April in Paris recently played at this address) or Brian Friel (whose Dancing at Lughnasa transferred for a long run at the Garrick) or the saucy seaside postcard simplification of Geoffrey Chaucer which occupied the theatre during the summer.

Last March, though, Deborah Warner defiantly proved that West End theatre-going need not abide by all of these laws and that a director is not obliged to pander to ingrained habit. For one sell-out week, her austerely haunting production of Beckett's Footfalls, starring Fiona Shaw, gave the public a 20-minute show twice nightly at a knock-down price (£4 a ticket) and to knockout emotional effect.

I single this out as the defining moment of my theatrical year for a variety of reasons: the inherent extraordinariness of the artistic experience it offered; the mordant statement it was making about the way theatre is traditionally conceived and organised in this neck of the woods; and, last but not least, because the row that it sparked off with the Beckett estate (which banned Warner from taking this version of Footfalls on its planned European tour) trains a particularly revealing light on the nature and uniqueness of theatre and on how these things can be misunderstood by writers, their legal minders, directors and critics alike.

The venerably Victorian Garrick had certainly never felt so strange. With a calculatedly dislocating impact, Warner and her designer, Hildegard Bechtler, had given the theatre a dismantled, desolate look. Dustsheets draped the light fittings. A few cand l es and three naked electric light bulbs burned. The back of the stalls had been roped off and the plush rows at the front had been annulled as even minimally comfortable seating by a covering of planks. Indeed, as reminder that all you need to make theat re are the proverbial two planks and a passion, the view was dominated by a rostrum, built of planks and located just beneath the dress circle.

Legs lagged in lumpy lisle stockings, Fiona Shaw's May, a fortysomething spinster who kept clutching at her torn marroon dress like some distressed little girl, was first seen shuffling across the vast dark void of the stage. Then, causing those of us who were in the stalls to have to wheel round, she reappeared up on the rostrum where she began talking to the unseen, bedridden 90-year-old mother (whose voice may exist only in May's consciousness) and where she embarked on the compulsive pacing - a superstitiously unvarying routine of nine paces forwards and back - that is the play's central image of a life constricted by its own neuroses. Treading this precarious ledge, Shaw had to grab on to the overhanging masonry at each turn.

Warner's crimes, according to the Beckett estate, were firstly that in an effort to heighten the play's thought / speaker ambiguities, she had reassigned some of the mother's lines to May. Threatened with an injunction, the director was forced to revert to the original allocation. With the ban on the European tour and on the TV version unlifted, she was still punished, though, for failing to follow to the letter each of Beckett's pedantically precise stage directions. The most overt flouting of these was the fact that instead of staying put in the one rut, Shaw re-materialised on stage halfway through and resumed her shuffling ritual there.

You could argue the toss over the artistic benefits of Warner's changes. One reviewer, dismissing the entire event as misguided, said that moving May about in this manner "is as absurd as would be a version of Happy Days in which the embedded Winnie got up and went for an evening stroll."

Admittedly, Warner did have the problem of not being able simply to spirit Shaw from one location to the next. But in other respects the analogy with Happy Days is unjust, for what Warner did in giving May two apparent fields of operation was to alter not the rigid content of the routine but the audience's angle of scrutiny on it. A sense of its neurotic immutability was, arguably, thereby intensified, just as (and this would be the fair parallel with Happy Days, Winnie's unbudging immurement in the mound of earth would come over more forcefully, if between Acts 1 and 2, its position on stage had shifted (say, nearer to the audience). To change everything but the essential elements is a good theatrical tactic for emphasising what is crucial.

More important than all that, though, are the issues of principle and of the thinking about theatre that the incident raises. One reviewer wrote that "watching this attempt at roving realism is a bit like seeing someone doodling on a Rembrandt". But the r e's a fatal flaw in that comparison, since Footfalls is not an object which is "there" in the sense that a Rembrandt painting is, a fact sometimes forgotten even by such passionate advocates of theatre as Richard Eyre. In an article in the Evening Standa rd, Eyre defended the number of 20th-century American works in the National's repertoire of late, arguing that a surfeit of neglected European classics would turn the theatre into a museum. But such plays are not stuffed objects in glass cases gathering dust. They exist only as they are recreated afresh by later generations, when, with luck, they can be as alive as they ever have been.

Of course, Beckett, first through the control-freakdom of his stage directions and now through the watchdogs of his estate, endeavoured to opt out of this process, creating drama that was increasingly actor-proof and director-proof and to that extent increasingly anti-theatrical. What is the point of a live actress playing the role of May before a live audience, if the object of the exercise is to get clone-close to the author-approved performance Billie Whitelaw gave in 1976? Couldn't the Be c kett estate take the mummification process to its logical conclusion and just arrange for a hologram which could be inspected at intervals?

What Warner's run-in with Beckett helped clarify for me was the fact that the best dramatists are those who understand the richness that comes from delegating responsibility to the imaginations of others.

" 'Tis new to thee," declares Prospero at the end of The Tempest when his daughter exclaims at the brave new world she has found. By leaving to the actor and director the tone in which that line is uttered (sadly, cynically, as private aside, directly),

Shakespeare gives the moment its continuing dramatic fascination, the sense of a living mystery. In its brave (perhaps misguided) attempt to find some of that richness in Beckett, Warner's version of Footfalls helped reaffirm the truth of Peter Brook's dictum that "Theatre reopens what definition closes".