Theatre: There was this Irishman...

Beckett in English is full of the importance of being earnest. But for the humour, try it in his native brogue, says Paul Taylor
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When someone asked Samuel Beckett if he was English, his dry response was "Au contraire". It's a great gag, compactly Irish in the teasing deadpan of its cockeyed logic (since it both does and doesn't make sense to think of an Irishman as the opposite of an Englishman) and in the rum way that this Irish Protestant reaches for a French phrase rather than, say, the equivalent Gaelic to make his point.

Ironically, it is also, some would argue, one of the few occasions when Beckett - who spent his last 50-odd years living in Paris and who composed a number of his works in French - was funnier in his adopted language than in his mother tongue.

That's a view you'd have thought would be wholeheartedly embraced by Michael Colgan, and Dublin's Gate Theatre, where he is the artistic director. Starting tonight, their massive Beckett Festival, comprising all 19 of his stage plays, unfolds at London's Barbican, having enjoyed huge success in Dublin in 1991 and New York in 1996. An ambitious programme of reading, talks, screening of television drama, and a Radio 3 season devoted to the Nobel Prize-winning author appear alongside it. With John Hurt making a welcome return to the stage to play the regret-ridden old man in Krapp's Last Tape, and with directors who bear the late dramatist's seal of approval - including the German, Walter Asmus, who assisted Beckett in his landmark 1975 Schiller Theater production of Waiting for Godot and the Pole, Antoni Libera, whom Beckett called "my Ambassador in Eastern Europe" - the festival boasts a wealth of Irish acting talent. And this, surely, is a major selling point - the chance to demonstrate that the playwright's bleak comedy works best when you give it an authentic Irish accent?

But there's a certain defensiveness when I put that question to Colgan and to actor Barry McGovern, a tall lean Beckett devotee who will be kept busy at the Barbican playing Vladimir in Godot, Clov in Endgame, and Willie in Happy Days. This arises, it becomes clear, from a mix of worry about appearing to limit Beckett's universality by claiming any special local rights ("I'd rather see a good Japanese production of Godot than a bad Irish one," declares McGovern) and of diplomatic modesty ("What I'm really saying is that, all things being equal, if you have three or four productions and there's nothing between them and you've got one with authentic Irish actors, that will probably have an edge - I'm not saying the edge," is as far as he will go in wary self-recommendation).

Certainly to scrutinise the stunning collection of black-and-white production photographs in the bar area of the Gate is to be reminded of how a significant part of Beckett's genius as a dramatist is the ability to distil a whole life down to its bare essence in stage pictures that make an indelible non-verbal impact. Here is the woman buried up to her neck in a mound of earth (Happy Days); the morbid menage a trois with heads protruding from urns (Play); a woman rocking herself to death in her mother's chair (Rockaby); and the spotlit mouth, jabbering in the dark (Not I) etc. But this doesn't lead one to agree with the character in Kenneth Tynan's parody-review of Endgame who sums up the show as: "Unique, oblique, bleak experience, in other words, and would have had the same effect if half the words were other words. Or any words." Beckett's words are as precise as the visual images, and many of their best turns are Irish.

Colgan quickly loses his guardedness on the subject, revealing that one of the spurs to mounting the original 1991 festival was Ireland's de facto exclusion from the 1986 international colloquium in Paris to mark the author's 80th birthday. The Gate's director decided to redress this bizarre imbalance by hiring a theatre and, with three weeks' notice, taking over Barry McGovern's one-man show, called I'll Go On, adapted from the novel trilogy. It was then that the pair of them first met Beckett who was very supportive of the project "although not to the point of coming to see it". As regards Beckett's bilingual approach to composition (moving to the purity of French because in that language, it is easier to write "sans style" and to throw off influences), Colgan, who himself read Irish at Trinity, makes this distinction: "When he wrote originally in English and then put it into French, they were translations. When he wrote originally in French and then put it into English, they were rewrites."

And also improvements, some of us would contend. Take Hamm's great line about God in the "prayer episode" in Endgame: "The bastard! He doesn't exist!" The original French "Le Salaud! Il n'existe pas!" has the right daft self-contradictoriness (how do you insult someone who is non-existent?) But "salaud", which can also mean "swine" or "filthy beast", lacks the savage precision of blasphemy. Christ is, after all, the Crown Prince of illegitimacy.

Or consider one of the moments of piercing comic pathos in Winnie's bright prattlings from her mound at the end of the first act of Happy Days: "Oh this is a happy day! This will have been another happy day! Pause. After all. Pause. So far.". When you hear the superb Rosaleen Linehan deliver that speech in Karel Reisz's production in the Festival, that little afterthought, "So far", has both a sad, ineffable dottiness and a due wariness because it raises the typically Beckettian anxiety, but even when everything seems to be done, nothing may be safely over. In the original French, where the ambiguous phrase "after all" is simply rendered as "malgre tout" (despite everything), there's no "Irish" tug between the phrases.

It surely doesn't rob Krapp's Last Tape of its universality that John Hurt, talking eloquently of the regret-consumed protagonist who made the tragic mistake of acting contrary to his nature and renouncing love and passion for a monastic devotion to literature, should invoke a local parallel. "Somebody said to me, you know, a lot of priests will be very interested in this because that's a decision they make, too," and he adds with a husky laugh, "and obviously we know now that not many of them know how to handle that...".

Nor is it parochialising pedantry to point out, as Colgan and McGovern do, how the ghost of Gaelic syntax shapes some of Beckett's lines. For it's having been born in a linguistically ambivalent culture, with English what you might call the stepmother tongue, that gives Beckett his acute sensitivity to the modern alienated sense that the language is speaking you. It's heard in the 1957 radio play All That Fall when Mrs Rooney's husband says, "Do you know, Maddy, sometimes one would think you were struggling with a dead language," and in the voices in the later monologues and stories where, McGovern argues, "the surprise is not how they speak, but that they are speaking at all."

A New York commentator referred to the "oxymoronically-named Beckett Festival". Now, no one could accuse this dramatist of facile optimism or "Bubbles" Rothermere-style effervescence, and "life-enhancing" would assuredly not be his favourite word, but sitting in on a Walter Asmus's rehearsal of Waiting for Godot, I find myself laughing aloud throughout as he pushes the excellent Alan Stanford to shift the balance of power by heightening the inner insecurity of Pozzo, the beefy, overbearing landowner.

It's an object lesson in the re-interpretability of these texts and in the truth of the statement in Endgame: "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness." A recent compilation show of the songs of Beckett's polar opposite, Jerry Herman, left me wanting to slit my wrists with its relentless, dogmatic endorsements of life ("There's a thank-you you can give life/if you live life all the way...") Grimly humorous misgivings about existence are much more fortifying. I'd say a Beckett Festival is not a contradiction in terms. Au contraire.

Beckett Festival, Barbican Theatre, London EC2 (0171-638 8891) tonight to 18 Sept

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