Edinburgh 2013: Eh Joe - Samuel Beckett's TV play starring Penelope Wilton

 

As Penelope Wilton recounts his appalling treatment of her predecessors and successors in Joe’s bed, Michael Gambon’s face is projected onto the gauze. Throughout the 30 minutes of the piece, he says not a word. We are aware of his hunched figure, wrapped in a rancid dressing gown, but it is the folds and craters of his face that tell us the story.

We can see his mouth drying as Wilton asks if there is anyone living who loves him now. Even his hair emotes. The scar-like pouches beneath his eyes, the vertical ridges on his neck quiver and jump. When, at one point, his hand enters the screen, it's almost too much.

Samuel Beckett wrote Eh Joe in 1966 as a TV play. This version, directed by Canadian film and theatre maker Atom Egoyan, was first seen at the Gate Theatre in Dublin and is part of a Festival series of work written by Beckett for radio and television. Beckett was a technical innovator in his own lifetime and these loving versions of 50-odd-year-old texts keep the spirit while bringing them alive for the iPad generation.

Egoyan’s use of projection is a simple idea that immediately marries the unforgiving close up of the small screen with the thrill of live performance. Gambon, a master of both, is the perfect interpreter. (And, for those of us who dabble in the middle as well as the high ends of culture, casting Penelope Wilton brings the delightful frisson of hearing Downton Abbey’s deeply worthy Isobel Crawley annunciating "slut" and "lavender slip".)

The combination of her crystal diction - we learn that Joe really fancied her voice, which he accurately described as "like flint glass" - and his heartless, thoughtless behaviour, moves him to tears. Real, ugly, bloodshot ones. Having found someone cleaner, and capable of fidelity, she has survived to return (albeit as a recorded, disembodied voice) and present him with an update on those who have not.

At half an hour this may be the shortest show at the festival but there is nothing miniature about it.  Any more would have been unbearable.

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