Given that the aspect of his work for which Samuel Beckett is probably best known is his use of language, the five short pieces which go to make up Fragments is remarkably reliant on the element of the visual for its effect. Having already sat through two productions of shorter Beckett dramas this year (see here and here) I was intrigued to see how this set would stand up against them. The French TV documentary which includes these playlets is interspersed with interviews with the actors and near legendary director Peter Brook – although some of this is in French, the performances themselves are in English.
Performed at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris, which for many years Brook ran, this production is minimalism at its most minimal. The venue itself is one that either a) needs redecorating or b) is pleasingly distressed depending on your own view of these things but it absolutely suits the work of a bleak playwright like Beckett. Except that two of the pieces on display are comic – bleakly comic, yes – but comic nonetheless. The three actors, all Complicité alumni, Jos Houben, Kathryn Hunter and Marcello Magni, are adept at both investing the words with depth and precision and the physical clowning which is required.
However, the production starts in more recognisably Beckettian territory with one of his classic double acts in Rough For Theatre 1. Houben and Magni are respectively a blind violin playing beggar and a one-legged cantankerous passer-by. They soon enter into a prickly relationship which goes nowhere fast. With obvious close parallels to both Godot and Endgame but without their depth, it seemed to make a perverse opener as it was probably the least interesting. Hunter follows with the monologue Rockaby in which an old woman’s inner monologue is made manifest. I had already seen this piece earlier this year and found this version more effective. The recorded monologue to which the woman rocks has been replaced by Hunter articulating the words herself – this gives the piece greater immediacy. However, I’m not quite sure why the specified rocking chair was replaced with an ordinary one as the rocker should be such an integral part of the action.
The second half of the performance ramps up the comedy. Act Without Words 2 does exactly what is says on the tin. Starting like a Lennon/Ono bag in, Houben emerges from a white sack, gets dressed, moves the sack, gets undressed and then clambers back in. He is morose and pessimistic. Magni repeats the sequence using the same clothes but is more animated and optimistic. Two men with different routines but the same outcome? Or one man on different days displaying two different aspects of his character? You choose. It doesn’t sound promising but is quite mesmerising in its precision and Houben and Magni are adept at wringing every ounce of humour out of the situation. Neither, featuring Hunter again, is at once the least developed piece but the most carefully crafted – I’m aware of the contradiction, but this is Beckett! Essentially a poem with some precisely calibrated movement it’s almost a case of blink and you miss it. The performance concludes with Come and Go featuring all three performers as old school friends Flo, Vi and Ru. They meet up, reminisce and gossip behind each other’s backs although the audience is never let in on the secrets they share. The facial expressions of the trio are joyously comic but the underlying tension is more typical of Beckett. Unusually and poignantly for this writer the three end the piece by being physically joined, holding hands together. No sense of social distancing here!
The repetitious nature of life seemed to be the underlying linking theme here – though that “charge” could probably be levelled at most of Beckett’s work. They were an interesting set of “dramaticules” well directed in an appropriate space, featuring a crack cast; all of this without even having to leave the house. Ultimately, I still feel the same about Beckett’s shorts as I did on my previous outings earlier this year. Like life itself one is left with a feeling that it is all rather unsatisfactory – a bit like eating canapes when you’d rather have steak and chips.
Fragments is available on Vimeo. Click here
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