Three Short Plays, Old Red Lion Theatre - Review

Dedicated to creating new productions of classic and contemporary Irish plays in London, award-winning theatre company Whispering Beasts (founded by Sarah Joyce and Bryan Moriarty) aims to explore, trace and nurture what it refers to as the Irish Voice – a unifying set of themes, concerns and motifs that recur throughout the Irish theatrical canon. Their latest project Three Short Plays sees them performing a triptych of Samuel Beckett’s lesser-known works at the Old Red Lion Theatre, the selection in question never performed together before.

Eschewing the measured, insightful diction that Beckett is sometimes known for, Act Without Words I focuses on action. Joe Eyre in this piece stars as the Sisyphean everyman who comes close to, but never quite, reaching his goal. Like Tantalus of legend who has sustenance withheld from him by an unseen force, Eyre makes endless fruitless attempts to acquire a bottle of water that is hung above his head. The other cast members operate an elaborate pulley system (devised by Charlie Marie Austin), and lower various objects to aid the man in his task, only to take them away from him when he’s found he proper use for them. No matter how many times he thinks he’s cracked the system, life proves him wrong.

Sound design and composition are often ‘forgettable’ elements in productions, seldom remembered by the audience after viewing a show. However while watching Act Without Words I, I was struck by how much Greg Harradine’s composition complemented the action perfectly, accentuating the frustration of the character.

In Rough For Theatre II, the second play of the evening, we’re introduced to Croker (Dominic Grove) who stands in front of an open window with his back to the audience, ready to jump. Sitting in near-darkness in the same room are Morvan (Bryan Moriarty) and Bertrand (Joe Eyre) who stay on two separate identical tables. Morvan is noticeably more on edge than his laid back colleague, especially as his own desk lamp switches off and on when he doesn’t want or expect it to. As 'old' and straightforward as this visual gag is, it’s very funny when performed here, and Bertrand and Morvan’s relationship is comparable to a straight/funny man stand-up routine. Also, the mention of identifiable places, including nearby Commercial Road had everybody in stitches. Theatre II showed that with the right direction Beckett’s work can be incredibly funny, which Joyce also pulled off with aplomb in the following play, Catastrophe.

However, Theatre II does have its more serious moments. Returning to would-be suicide Croker, we find that Morvan has extensive files on him, full of collected statements about Croker from the people he knows with regards to “Work, family … finances, art and nature, heart and conscience...” Croker in the final analysis falls short as a human being, and we wonder whether they are darker versions of ‘Clarence’ from It’s a Wonderful Life, who have to report to a Higher Authority.

It has to be said that the lighting by Joshua Pharo for Three Plays and Theatre II in particular is top notch. I’ve rarely seen the Old Red Lion Theatre lit up in such an atmospheric way before and this certainly elevated the whole feel of the evening.

Catastrophe, the final play of the evening features Kate Kennedy as the beleaguered assistant to an autocratic stage director (Bryan Moriaty). She has to accommodate his every whim regarding positioning the posture and appearance of the subservient protagonist (Dominic Grove) on a plinth. The play raises questions about authority and whether the power to dominate is imposed externally or power that we ourselves give to others. The plays is also very funny, almost exclusively due to Kennedy’s stellar performance and Joyce's direction.

While Beckett’s work is generally respected by those who have a broad knowledge of theatre history, for those who have had little exposure to his work or only heard him talked about in revered hushed tones, Beckett remains something of an enigma. This collection of plays as performed by Whispering Beasts, has fulfilled its mission brief to the hilt in bringing the Irish masters through insight and industry to a wider, appreciative audience.

© Michael Davis




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