It always seems a touch sentimental to call a show a “gift” (not to mention dubious — most theater is far from free), but in the case of On Beckett, the oversize shoe simply fits. The brilliant clown Bill Irwin has brought his utterly delightful almost-solo show to the Irish Rep, and his astute, inquisitive engagement with the work of the existentialist titan feels like an act of professional generosity. “I’m not a Beckett scholar,” he assures us early on, “Nor am I a Beckett biographer. Mine is an actor’s relationship with this language.” With candor and poignancy, Irwin pulls back the curtain on the process of performing Beckett’s “famously difficult” texts. Infinitely expressive body, bowler hat, and baggy pants are his primary tools. With them, he cracks Beckett open and invites us to step inside. Performing passages from Beckett’s writings and interspersing them with thoughtful commentary on what it is about this particular language that has long obsessed him, Irwin is like a magician revealing how the trick is done — and somehow rendering it all the more magical in the process.
While not a play per se, On Beckett is a delicious piece of theater. Picture a top-notch TED Talk (if TED Talks were less cheesy) crossed with a clown show: a playful, intimate experiment conducted by a master practitioner who wouldn’t dream of professing anything as absurd as mastery. “I would never claim a comprehensive knowledge, nor reading, of Mr. Beckett’s vast body of work,” Irwin tells us, continuing with just a hint of deadpan mischief: “I’m not sure I’d want one.” Nevertheless, Beckett’s language “haunts [him].” It’s “gone viral” inside him, infiltrating his “head, heart, brain, mind, psyche, body — all the words we use to speak of ‘self’.” In sharing selections of this language and ruminations on it, Irwin isn’t leading a seminar so much as he’s continuing his own exploration. Why can’t he get Beckett out of his head?
Perhaps it’s heritage. The American Irwin comes from Irish stock, and despite the mind-boggling irony that Beckett originally wrote the majority of his work in French (later translating it into English himself), his writer’s voice is an undeniably Irish one. Or perhaps it’s what Irwin calls the “character energy” of Beckett’s writing — how, it all its elliptical knottiness, it still “sounds… like people I’ve known all my life.” Or is it the way the language dramatizes the polyphony inside our own heads, its evocation of a shifting, boundless “portrait of consciousness”? Beckett’s pronouns, Irwin notes, are “charged and slippery.” As he slides between persons and tenses, is he recording an argument between people “or within one head”? “Ah yes,” says the speaker of No. 1 of the “Texts for Nothing”, a series of 13 short prose pieces written in 1950 that Irwin draws from throughout his show: “We seem to be more than one, gathered together for life.”
Irwin tosses questions out into the air like juggling scarves, and we watch their colors flash as he keeps them delicately suspended. Answering them isn’t the point. They’re simply tiny keys into different rooms of an infinite house. The master key is play — experimenting with a bowler hat or a bit of slapstick or a broad American accent might open something up. Donning baggier pants and bigger shoes might make something come alive. Dancing to Run-D.M.C. with a twirling cane, like an out-of-time Buster Keaton, might tap into some essential Beckettian energy — and does. As a virtuosically physical performer—Ringling-trained and steeped in vaudeville tradition—Irwin can sniff out the silliness in Beckett, as well as the showman. “He was a writer acutely attuned to silhouette,” Irwin argues. “[He] was born in 1906 — first generation to come of age with the motion picture. Silent movies… [His] family often went to the variety theater, to vaudeville…. Here’s a stage direction from his most famous play: They remain motionless, arms dangling, heads sunk, sagging at the knees.” Irwin transforms as he speaks, dropping into a pose of heavy, hilarious haplessness. Working from the body, the performer finds the clown inside the writer. Game recognize game.
Of course, Irwin is also sharp, sensitive actor. He won a Tony in 2005 for his performance as George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a play that he amusingly recalls the director Mike Nichols comparing to Waiting for Godot. (“You’ve got two people, another two people come in and everything blows up, then those second two people leave — they’re essentially the same play.”) In 1988, Nichols directed Irwin as Lucky, Godot’s silent, whip-driven drudge who explodes into a wild, three-page-long speech near the end of the first act. That speech—which Irwin describes delivering while Steve Martin and and Robin Williams attempted to wrestle him to the ground—comes back to form the climax of On Beckett. It follows other excerpts from Godot, from “Texts for Nothing,” and from two of Beckett’s novels, and for it, Irwin dons his most extreme silhouette. In huge, flapping shoes, pants so baggy that his bent knees disappear inside them, and of course, one of his collection of bowlers, Irwin reveals Lucky as simultaneously the goofiest and the most terrifyingly tragic of Godot’s quartet. In Irwin’s mouth and in his elastic face and form, Lucky’s famous speech resonates not as nonsense but as the scattershot, increasingly ferocious attempts of an oppressed soul to assert itself when the body is pushed past humanity. Irwin feelingly argues for interpreting the speech as a scene rather than as a monologue — a violent interaction in which the listening characters descend into fear, disgust, and cruelty. Even as he rockets through the dense, spectacular text, he grabs the rope around his own neck, struggles with himself, tries to force himself to put the lid back on the boiling pot. It’s a stark, exhausting performance — equal parts incisive textual analysis and pure sweat.
And like all of On Beckett, it’s also deeply funny. Even as Irwin is charting the connections between Beckett and Dante—and from there to Milton and to William Styron, who wrote about the experience of severe depression in Darkness Visible—he’s finding gasps of laughter in the abyss. “There seem to be some shared touchstones for all who have descended to a hell, and returned,” he meditates… just before putting on his first pair of baggy trousers and a professor’s mortarboard and performing perhaps the world’s most perfect rendition of the old dad routine of elevator-ing up and down behind a piece of furniture. “Irish Rep installed this great automated podium,” he jokes, straight-faced, before seeming to lose control of the “button” he’s been pressing and almost disappearing on his journey downwards. Irwin is a master of the old joke (in 2013 he and fellow clown David Shiner performed an original variety show called Old Hats) and the joy of his gags is their combination of familiarity and breathtaking physical skill. It’s the paradox of a great clown: The material is ancient, the virtuosity forever young.
Whether bringing to life Beckett’s prose, or offering, at the same time, dazzling performances and shrewd readings of pieces of Beckett’s plays, Irwin creates a joyful doorway into this sometimes impenetrable work. As he sat in a spotlight, murmuring a passage from the novel The Unnamable into a microphone, I closed my eyes: Even this supposedly un-dramatic text, I thought, is meant to be spoken, to be heard — to pass through one body into another body, the way good stories always have. What if, I thought, all the students being given Beckett to read in high school could experience his language in Irwin’s voice, or better still, in his body? It seems to me that they’d find a maze suddenly turned into a playground. They might find much easier, much more exhilarating, that great, intimidating Beckettian task: to begin.
On Beckett is at the Irish Rep through November 4.