When the slim, handsome Tony Award-winning actor Bill Irwin appears on the Irish Repertory Theatre’s stage in On Beckett, he also respectfully indicates a silent co-star: the face of Samuel Beckett is projected on to the side of the stage.
Irwin, who conceived and performs this show, is dressed in a lovely suit, crisp white shirt. There is a black cushioned lectern and long seat. It feels as if we are about to receive a talk or acting masterclass.
On Beckett has elements of both, plus dashes of distinctive performance. Irwin tells us he will share some passages of Beckettian prose, and also share “some thoughts on having lived with this language, and performed it to audiences, over many years.”
This is near-90 minutes of pleasure, but a demanding, rigorous kind of pleasure: the best university lecture you’ve never had. Beckett and his existential interrogations and puzzles are not easy to watch, or analyze. But Beckett fascinates Irwin.
“The stretches of language I want to share with you have gone viral,” he tells us. “Perhaps on the internet—but certainly inside of: my head, my heart, my brain, my mind, my psyche, my body. All the words we use to speak of ‘self.’ This language haunts me, it will not let me alone.”
Irwin emphasizes he is not a Beckett scholar, he has an actor’s relationship to Beckett’s language. And we see, when he shows us the myriad ways how to perform a slice of Waiting For Godot, how differently that language can be embraced. Beckett, Irwin shows us, offers both actor and audience a huge interpretive space. (Irwin also mentions the latest Godot coming to New York, the Druid theater company production for Lincoln Center at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College, running Nov 2-13.)
The repetition of words, the mysteries, the unending sentences, the rhetorical cul-de-sacs: Irwin delights in the journey of discovery and questioning Beckett's work offers.
In this mission, Irwin is expertly aided by designer Charlie Corcoran, Michael Gottlieb’s lighting, which gives us harsh spotlight, and gentle pastels, and M. Florian Staab’s sound design which gives us echoes and '80s disco.
Yes, Irwin’s canvas is wide and colorful. His own past intersects with Beckett when it comes to clowning, an art Irwin is a master in and which Beckett’s characters, most famously Waiting For Godot’s Vladimir and Estragon, embodied.
Irwin’s physical comedy is delicious: it begins with putting on multiple pairs of baggy pants, or showing us the metamorphic qualities of bowler hats. He leans one way, leans another, faces off against an innocuous-looking step. A supposed remote control that adjusts the height of the lectern is in fact another Irwin feat of physicality, which is so good I found myself querying with my friend in a thunderstorm afterwards, “Maybe his body is remote controlled!”
His face, his hair, his expressions, his gait, his bearing: Irwin makes everything about himself malleable, in the blink of an eye. As much as this is an exercise in understanding Beckett and the desperation and agonies of his characters, it is also an exercise in understanding the craft and practice of acting. By the end Irwin’s crisp white shirt is drenched in sweat.
“It’s an Irish voice, and the language is immediate,” Irwin thinks of Beckett. “The word Existentialism tends to put us to sleep—but questions of being—of survival—keep us awake. That’s what I feel in this language.”
Irwin confesses he once inserted an extra “all” into one of Beckett’s speeches. The words are so packed and odd it might not seem like it would matter, but it did to Irwin. When he reads from Watt—a heady pile-up of familial relationship terms—you see why. For Irwin the passage shows Beckett’s facility with conveying a “spooky” mounting sense of violence.
Irwin considers the American versus British way of saying “Godot” (he settles for British), and briefly shares the stage with an able young performer, Finn O’Sullivan (an eighth-grade student at Saint David’s School in Manhattan), who plays the mysterious boy who appears in Waiting For Godot.
From the same play, Irwin recites the unfortunate Lucky’s speech. It is as much a dense thicket as everything else Irwin reads—and yet we listen intently because there, in front of us, Irwin is making sense of the text as he reads it to us, and in between these recitations he just as clearly and engagingly explains his ideas and theories about its meaning and composition.
Irwin is the best kind of teacher, imparting knowledge, sharing knowledge, and then delighting in making himself and us understand what can be understood of such a fascinating, opaque authorial personality. As trapped as they can appear, Beckett’s characters are fascinatingly alive, and insistently vivid. Irwin's On Beckett is not a complete or definitive analysis—it doesn't pretend to be. But it is a brilliant gateway to understanding.
“Is there a key to Samuel Beckett’s writing?” Irwin asks himself and us. “No, no single key—none of us will ever make summation of this writing, or manage to corral, or bring to heel, this great and wild body of work. But there is an important strand in looking at it, I think—the energy, the dutiful effort (for others) the strength summoned, the fight to re-ascend from hell. And to be able to begin.”
On Beckett is at Irish Repertory Theatre until November 4. Book here.