June 2, 2009By Nick WoodsArchive
fragments, bouffes du nord

Men living in bags are goaded from above in “Act without Words II.” © Alastair Muir

Fans of Samuel Beckett, or those wanting an initial insight into the brilliance of his work, should not miss out on a handful of “shorts” expertly directed by Peter Brook at the Bouffes du Nord theater

fragments, bouffes du nord
Men living in bags are goaded from above in “Act without Words II.” © Alastair Muir

Fans of Samuel Beckett, or those wanting an initial insight into the brilliance of his work, should not miss out on a handful of “shorts” expertly directed by Peter Brook at the Bouffes du Nord theater in Paris. Well-acted throughout, the five very different pieces make for a thoroughly entertaining one-hour showcase of key Beckettian themes, carrying off to perfection the black humor that is intrinsic to Beckett’s particularly minimalist style of tragic-comic theater.

The pieces – a sketch, two short plays, a mime play and an “opera” – are performed in English, even those initially written in French, with the French subtitles beamed onto the weathered pillars of the theater’s proscenium arch. These were very handy at the start of the first piece, Rough for Theatre 1/Fragment de Théatre 1, when actor Khalifa Natour, playing a blind beggar with a fiddle, spoke his opening lines (“A penny for a poor old man,” repeated three times) unclearly.

Brook has assembled three accomplished actors: Natour, Hayley Carmichael and Marcello Magni. I was especially impressed by the intensity of Carmichael’s and Magni’s performances, while Natour’s comic acting won the most laughs.

Beckett’s plays probe deeply into the bleak reality and patterns of human existence, provoking a deep emotional reaction in the audience as we recognize our own angst. It is difficult to say what the plays are actually “about,” though Beckett’s overriding preoccupation is clearly man’s suffering in an incomprehensible world.

In Rough for Theatre 1, Natour plays opposite Magni, a one-legged man in a wheelchair. They meet up by chance on a street corner, lonely, abandoned and suffering at the hands of an unspecified natural or man-made disaster. Their mutual dependence is clear, whether they like it or not – one has eyes, the other legs – and their dialogue about the past and present shows them to be victims of an antagonistic world.

Natour and Magni work together again for the mime play Act Without Words II, in which they are curled up in big white bags alongside each other. A goad (God?) descends from the ceiling and prods Magni, disturbing his rest, at which point he has to get up, pray, get dressed, move the sacks towards stage right, swapping them around in the process, before he can rest again. Then the action is then repeated, with the goad coming down on Natour. Magni meets with difficulties at each stage of the process, letting out irritated wheezes as he looks up to the sky and raises his hands in despair. Natour, however carries out his task easily and joyfully, bringing to mind John Travolta as Danny Zuko in Grease. When it is Magni’s turn again, we see clearly in his face that he knows that praying to a being that makes him suffer is a joke.

Carmichael has two one-woman spots. In the short play Rockaby/Berceuse, she gives an emotional performance as a woman in a rocking chair in an increasing state of despair and distress. The repetitive nature of the words and phrases, in particular “time she stopped” gives the text a poetic beauty that contrasts with her drab gray dress and the monotony of her lonely life as, like her mother, she moves slowly from the cradle to the grave.

In Neither/Ni l’Un ni l’Autre, a short poem written as a modern-day opera, Carmichael, dressed in a black frock, talks of being caught in a nowhere land between two states of non-existence. Clever use is made here of shadows and the doorways on either side of the theater’s arch.

The three actors come together for the finale, Come and Go/Va et Vient, which has them dressed colorfully as old ladies (Vi, Ru and Flo), the men amusingly in drag while Carmichael’s facial expressions age her no end. They are former school friends sitting on a bench, as they probably did years before. The action is cyclical: Each old lady takes it in turn to leave the bench, at which point one of the remaining ladies whispers a shocking secret to the other about the absent party, though we never discover what it is.

At the end they are all back on the bench, holding hands while crossing their arms to form an eternal chain. Again in this piece, the funniest of the five, we are confronted with the repetitiveness of life. Then you die.

Beckett was fastidious about the staging of his plays, and Brook has clearly taken some liberties: the chair in Rockaby isn’t a rocking chair, for example, and the dull frock worn by Carmichael ignores Beckett’s demand that the actress wear lace. But Brook’s use of minimalist costume is a good match for the bleakness of the subject matter. Magni’s wheelchair in Rough for Theatre I isn’t real, but it doesn’t matter.

While I am not sure that Beckett ever professed to being a fan of Grease, Natour’s comic portrayal of a cool cat checking his look in the mirror brought lots of laughs. I also liked the disappearing scenery. All the necessary props for Fragments are scattered around the stage at the beginning, but then the actors remove their props at the end of each piece, effectively communicating the slow but sure progress toward a state of nothingness.

Despite Beckett’s bleak themes, it is wrong to think you will leave the theater full of gloom. The dark themes are counterbalanced by dark humor. And there is nothing more exhilarating and cathartic than seeing Beckett done well, which is the case here. The rapturous applause for the three actors on Saturday night was well-deserved. That said, I was glad to see Fragments in early summer rather than the sad weeks of early winter.

Nick Woods
Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord:
37 bis, boulevard de la Chapelle, 75010 Paris. Métro: La Chapelle.
Tickets: up to €26. Through 20 June.

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