Derval Tubridy
Act Without Words II: Raymond Keane crawls out of a sack. Photo: F. Sakauchi

Samuel Beckett – Act Without Words II
Company SJ
St. Alfege’s Park, London, 2011 and Theatre Alley June 2012

Act Without Words II has the focused intensity of the best of Beckett’s theatre. A mime featuring two male protagonists, A and B, it delineates the routines of life circumscribed within the movement from daybreak to dusk. Sarah Jane Scaife’s production of Act Without Words II, in St. Alfege’s Park in the heart of Greenwich, London, took place at dusk on a summer’s evening in late June, 2011. The audience gathered at a small gate on the perimeter of the park, from where it was guided through headstones and trees to a dim clearing in the gathering dark. The door of a snug brick outbuilding opened and a shaft of light seared the night, illuminating a strip that would become Beckett’s ‘low and narrow platform at the back of the stage, violently lit in its entire length’.

Scaife’s decision to take Beckett’s mime from the intimate space of the stage to public outdoor spaces foregrounds the ethical resonance of the work because, as the director explains, these are the places ‘where the homeless spend their time’. Beckett’s A and B become two homeless men, living rough, their lives circumscribed by the monotony of daily routine, goaded into action by the point of a stick wielded by some unknown, like the bell that wakes Winnie in Happy Days. Played by two powerful physical theatre experts, Raymond Keane (Director of Barabbas Theatre Company) and Bryan Burroughs (winner Best Supporting Actor: Irish Times Theatre Awards 2009 for his part in Johnny Patterson The Singing Irish Clown (Barabbas), Scaife’s direction is tightly choreographed to emphasise the disparity between A and B, as Beckett describes ‘A is slow, awkward (gags dressing and undressing), absent. B is brisk, rapid, precise’. The disparity between both protagonists, as performed by Keane and Burroghs, underlines a fundamental pathos in our understanding of how the very act of living is a challenge and a difficulty for some, and raises provocative questions about our attitudes, and responses, to the homeless and to those on the margins of society.

In Act Without Words II Scaife collaborates with award-winning theatre and lighting designer, Aedín Cosgrove. The simplicity and strength of her design for Act Without Words II makes possible a space for performance while providing a visual counterpoint to the abject and liminal settings of the play. Those who had the chance to visit the ‘Happy Days’ Beckett Festival in Enniskillen in August 2012 may have seen Pan Pan Theatre’s production of All That Fall with sublime lighting design by Cosgrove. The freedom afforded by staging a radio play was fully embraced to powerful effect by Cosgrove who played the intensity of a wall of spotlights off against the vulnerability of individual lightbulbs dangling at different heights from the ceiling. Each set of lights illuminated in response to the spoken word. Those who consider All That Fall tangential to their experience of Beckett would reconsider after witnessing the complex of aural and visual intensity effected by Pan Pan and Cosgrove’s extraordinary lighting design as the train finally arrives at the station with unspoken and possibly awful ramifications.

Scaife’s production of Samuel Beckett’s Act Without Words II was first produced to critical acclaim in 2009 as part of Dublin’s ‘Absolut Fringe Festival’. It was re-presented at the 2010 ‘Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival’, and subsequently travelled to two major London festivals in 2011 with support from Culture Ireland: ‘Greenwich & Docklands’ (where it played in St. Alfege’s Park) and ‘Imagine Watford’ (where it played in the stage-door laneway of Watford Palace Theatre). In June 2012 it played in Theatre Alley, New York, as part of the River to River Festival, its proximity to ground zero lending greater charge to the sense of vulnerability and despair already evident in the production.

Scaife founded Company SJ in 2009 in order to explore new ways of performing Irish texts. She has a strong affiliation with Beckett’s work and has a real sense of the rhythms and counterpoints that underpin his writing for theatre. She has directed Beckett worldwide, including China, India, Greece and Mongolia. Hers is not a personality driven interpretation of Beckett’s work, but one in which each element––body, speech, sound, space and light––is orchestrated to fully convey the fundamental of the work even as it responds directly to contemporary experience. Scaife, Cosgrove, Keane and Burroughs deliver a rigorous and inventive production of Act Without Words II that reminds us how important Beckett’s theatre is for our understanding of contemporary times.

Published in The Beckett Circle, Autumn 2012.

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Posted by:Rhys Tranter

Rhys Tranter is a writer based in Cardiff, Wales, UK. He is the author of Beckett's Late Stage (2018), and his work has appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, The Spectator, and a number of books and periodicals. He holds a BA, MA, and a PhD in English Literature. His website is a personal journal offering commentary and analysis across literature, film, music, and the arts.

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