Samuel Beckett: A gloom of his own

Samuel Beckett was born 100 years ago. From Pinter to Brook, theatre's A-list is celebrating a misunderstood playwright
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The Independent Culture

This year marks the centenary of the birth of Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) and already there have been some remarkable events to commemorate the occasion. In the early spring the Barbican joined forces with Dublin's Gate Theatre for a wide-ranging season of plays films and readings. The summer saw Michael Gambon take to the stage in London in a groundbreaking theatrical version of the television play Eh Joe, during which his character reacted in silence, fear and anguish (and in giant filmed close-up) to the accusing voice of a former lover which forced its way through his mind like a worm through a bad apple, and Waiting for Godot is playing in London.

But we are now experiencing the most momentous week of this celebration for the finest, funniest and wisest dramatist-novelist Ireland has produced. From tonight, at the Royal Court, Harold Pinter performs the role of Krapp in Ian Rickson's new production of Krapp's Last Tape. And just opened in Paris, where I attended the press performance, is a brilliant set of productions by Peter Brook, which is entitled Fragments, and comprises Berceuse (Rockaby), Fragment de Théâtre 1, Esquisse Radiophonique (Rough for Radio), and a stage version of a late prose piece from Foirades (Fizzles) called Ni l'Un Ni l'Autre (Not One Nor The Other).

That's the measure of the momentousness. The greatest living English playwright and the greatest living English director are concurrently celebrating the greatest dramatist of the 20th century. And there's a pleasing and appropriate symmetry. Beckett operated in both English and French (as an expatriate in Paris) and is now being honoured on both sides of the Channel. The Brook production, which is destined for London with the same inspired cast (who will switch from a French to an Irish-English text) will wipe the sneer off the faces of those who take delight in claiming that Brook's best work is in the past. Fragments - which is co-conceived with Lilo Baur and Marie-Helene Estienne - brims with a youthful joy. Similarly, those who believe that Pinter had given his final performance when, gravely ill, he delivered his onslaught-against-the-US Nobel lecture on camera, have another think coming.

I have never looked forward to a theatrical event more than Pinter in Krapp's Last Tape, a shattering masterpiece about voluntary and involuntary memory with which his own work has many creative affinities and honoured debts. Pinter is the man who wrote the marvellous Proust Screenplay. Beckett is the man who, in his early twenties, wrote the monograph Proust which matchlessly describes (and takes issue with) Proust's famous insights into the function of involuntary memory - that semi-accidental process whereby consecutive time is conquered when the mind dredges up a memory, that unworn-down by familiarity, affronts us with its rending, vacuum-sealed freshness.

Both Pinter and Brook knew Beckett as a friend. Michael Billington's biography of Pinter recalls the amusing anecdote that, at the outset of their relationship, Beckett kindly combed Paris for bicarbonate of soda in the wee small hours when a heavy drinking session had left the Pinter tummy worse for wear - though when I raised this incident with Pinter's best friend and fellow-dramatist, Simon Gray, he expressed surprise. Clearly, it's been many a long day since the author of The Homecoming and Old Times has not been able to hold his drink. Peter Brook also used to meet Beckett regularly, as I discovered when I chatted to him after the performance in Paris of Fragments.

Among the general public, the author of Waiting for Godot, Endgame, Happy Days et al has a reputation for gloom and depression and over-intellectuality - the kind of author who, after you've spent an evening in the theatre with his work, would send you out into the night dearly wishing to slit your wrists. He's the man who put a woman being slowly buried alive, on stage . He deposited two tramps at a crossroads for a crucial encounter that would never come - or not in this life, at any rate. He's the artist who spot-lit a jabbering female mouth pouring out the torment of a self who is on the run in more ways than one. But Brook asserts that, looked at with accuracy and insight, Beckett's work has (or should have) exactly the opposite effect. It goes to the depths of the abyss and uplifts, the one operation impossible without the other.

Brook recalls how, one day, he asked Beckett, who had been groaning about writer's cramp and block, why, in fact, he bothered to write at all. "He replied," Brook reports with a laugh, "that, 'I feel like a snail but, as such, you have to leave a little trace of your slime behind you'. That was a typically "Irish" comic way of putting it, but the image of slime is too modest and misrepresents the case -- because he didn't want to leave slime behind. He had an extreme perfectionism - a manic wish to make absolutely beautiful objects. This is not consistent with the negativity that is his reputation."

Brook makes the distinction between Beckett and his contemporary, the painter, Francis Bacon, who, in the popular mind, is in the same bracket of modernist gloom-merchant. "Francis Bacon was in love with death. But, with Beckett, the concern was always, 'how do you discover what makes life, with all its drawbacks, worth living', not what makes death worth dying."

Laughter resounds round the red, pockmarked, experience-saturated Moorish walls of Brook's theatre, the Bouffes du Nord - and at some unexpected junctures - during Fragments . The production treats four separate works as one continuous piece, rather like a sonata - with rather uncannily graduated changes of light between sections, where the whole theatre seems to flush with rapturous beauty, as if we were witnessing a collision between the world of neon and the world of Piero della Francesca.

The evening opens with a hilarious sketch between a blind, vagrant violinist and an irascible cripple in a wheelchair, who form one of those dangerously symbiotic relationships that you get all over Beckett (from the tramps in Godot to Mercier and Camier). This duo are like a lighter, crazier and (in my view) more psychologically fascinating version of Hamm and Clov in Endgame.

Brook's extraordinary mastery of theatres is evident in the idiosyncrasy of the casting and the directorial decisions taken here. He creates a world that has a weird internal consistency at the same time as being out of sync with what we are disposed to describe as the "real world". Thus, he cast two non-French actors - an Italian, Marcello Magni and a Flemish performer, Jos Houben - who play the pieces in French. Both have worked with Complicite and excel both in that fragment and in the wordless and killingly funny mime Fragment de Théâtre 1, where they alternately pupate from plastic bags and negotiate exactly the same set of clothes and daily rituals - with the potty proviso that the superb Houben is as derangedly cheerful about existence as Magni is stubbornly gloomy, his mouth making a point turning down in an almost self-satisfied sulk at every available opportunity. Even when he's nearly back in his bag, Magni pops up again to execute one last rictus of repudiation, as if he fears that we might still run off with the idea that he is happy - a grimace that is, as it were, one-for-the-road, or for "Auld Lang Syne". The third performer in the evening is the stunningly unusual actress, Genèvieve Mnich, who performs Berceuse, the solo piece in which a woman is rocked into extinction in the chair where her mother used to sit. But Brook has given an amazing new twist to the whole business, which I don't want to spoil for people who will see this production when it comes to England. Suffice it to say that, instead of the drugged, hypnotic incantation normally associated with the piece, Mnich - using her remarkable moral authority as an actress and her self-mocking cat-like face - delivers this very beautiful play about self-euthanasia in the tone of someone defiantly watching, and hearing, themselves with a savage gallows wit. The actress also performs the lovely final fragment, Ni l'Un Ni l'Autre, making use of both stage-doors in this wonderful distillation of life perceived as an inexpressible suspension between two kinds of non-existence. Witnessing her and talking to Peter Brook brought home to me more than ever how, in Beckett, extreme depression is a threshold to the mystical. He is of the same company as Philip Larkin, who lugubriously/ecstatically imagined many-angled light congregating endlessly, or Emily Dickinson, who wrote that, after great pain, a formal feeling comes (except that, for Beckett, you sense that that "formal feeling" came during pain as well).

Harold Pinter in Krapp's Last Tape is the major mouth-watering event of the Beckett centenary celebrations. Samuel Beckett is said to have died with a copy of Harold Pinter's Betrayal - a great backwards-moving play about adultery and male friendship - by his bedside. He also sent Pinter a card of commendation about Betrayal that is, in its own staggeringly succinct fashion, almost as great as the play itself, in its plaiting of prospect and retrospect. Here it is: "That last first look in the shadows after all those in the light to come wrings the heart."

Harold Pinter opens tonight as Krapp at the Royal Court Theatre , London, until 24 October (; 'Fragments' is at the Bouffes du Nord, Paris, until 28 October (; 'Waiting for Godot' is at the New Ambassadors Theatre, London, until 18 October (