25 February – 1 March 2014 · Secret Location, Cambridge

by Samuel Beckett
11pm, Tuesday 25 February – Saturday 1 March
At a Secret Central Cambridge Location:
Visit www.adcticketing.com for details.

Produced by Cambridge University’s Heywood Society, with the support of the Lady Margaret Players. Direct event link: http://www.adcticketing.com/whats-on/drama/roughs.aspx

The Production:

‘Roughs’ is an immersive staged reading of Samuel Beckett’s Roughs for Radio 1 & 2, taking place in Cambridge later this month. After extensive research, the Heywood Society can say that this is the first time these plays have been staged in Britain.

About Beckett’s Radio Plays

Samuel Beckett is best known for his stage plays (Waiting for Godot, Endgame, Happy Days) and his novels (Murphy, Malone Dies), but he was also fascinated by radio. Between 1956 and 1963, Beckett wrote seven radio plays (six original scripts, and an Irish-flavoured reimagining of Robert Pinget’s play, La Manivelle). In his words, these are plays written “to come out of the dark.”

Beckett’s radio plays are not comfortable listening. Following the broadcast of Beckett’s first radio play, All That Fall, a BBC audience survey described how this “effective, if rather frightening” play confused and unsettled the listeners.

Most people have never heard a Beckett radio play. Beckett was adamant that his radio plays were only for radio, and refused to have them staged. After the success of All That Fall, he famously wrote to his publisher:

All That Fall is a specifically radio play, or rather radio text, for voices, not bodies. I have already refused to have it ‘staged’ and I cannot think of it in such terms… It is no more theatre than End-Game [sic.] is radio and to ‘act’ it is to kill it. Even the reduced visual dimension it will receive from the simplest and most static of readings… will be destructive of whatever quality it may have and which depends on the whole thing’s coming out of the dark.”

Beckett maintained these views fiercely. As a result, the Beckett Estate normally refuses to allow stagings of Beckett’s radio plays, and only very rarely makes an exception to this rule.

One high-profile exception took place in 2012, when Sir Trevor Nunn directed Sir Michael Gambon and Dame Eileen Atkins in a sell-out West End production of All That Fall – the first ever UK staging of this play. To avoid ‘killing’ Beckett’s radio-text, Nunn built a 1950s-style radio studio onstage. The actors read from scripts into radio microphones, while sound-effects were created around them. More recently, Irish theatre company Pan Pan took productions of Embers and All That Fall to the 2013 Edinburgh International Festival, in which the actors were hidden from the audience. Any director who plans to direct a live performance of the radio plays must find a similarly cunning solution.

About Roughs For Radio I & II

To many critics, the radio plays are the quintessential Beckett. As his career progressed, Beckett’s writing became more intimate and experimental, filled with internal monologues and unseen ghostly voices. Several of these later plays have been nicknamed ‘skullscapes’ by critics. Rough for Radio I & II are two of his finest works in this style.

Rough for Radio I is an adventurous and experimental sketch – an ‘experience’, rather than a conventional drama. This dreamlike, abstract play weaves together music, words and unsettling sound effects as it builds towards a tense climax. In the upcoming Cambridge production, Rough for Radio I will be set to an original score by Jeff Carpenter.

Rough for Radio I is the only Beckett radio play never to be produced by the BBC. Beckett wrote this haunting sketch in French in 1961. He left it untouched for years before translating it into English, and publishing it in Stereo Headphones magazine in 1976 as ‘Sketch for Radio Play’. As it never received a BBC production, few people have had the chance to hear the play. A production was broadcast on Irish radio-station RTE for Beckett’s centenary in 2006, and has been recorded live in America, but the play has never been produced in Britain.

Despite exhaustive research, The Heywood Society have been unable to find any records of a theatrical staging of Rough for Radio, making this staged rehearsed reading a world first.

Rough for Radio II is more plot-driven than Rough for Radio I. It is a darkly comic nightmare, laced with poetic imagery and grim innuendo. Two shadowy figures – self-indulgent Animator (Sam Clayton) and pedantic Stenographer (Ally Cussons) – torture and interrogate Fox (Ben Hawkins), an enigmatic subhuman creature cursed with the gift of language.

This is the first time Rough for Radio II has been staged in the UK, and only the second production of it to be staged in Europe.

About the Production Companies

The Heywood Society is the theatrical society of Cambridge’s oldest college, Peterhouse. Named after the seventeenth-century dramatist and Petrean, Thomas Heywood. The Society is run by a committee of College members. The society has produced shows at the ADC Theatre and Corpus Playroom as well as Peterhouse. In 2012 the society took a touring production of T.S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party to France. Roughs is a Heywood Society production.

The Lady Margaret Players is the theatrical society of St John’s College, Cambridge. They traditionally stage productions in the 800-year-old School of Pythagoras, but more recently have staged plays at a wider range of venues. The Lady Margaret Players have lent their support to Roughs.

The Music of Rough for Radio I

In Beckett’s plays, music can be a character. In Words and Music an entire symphony orchestra plays the role of a slave called Bob. Given this, it’s unsurprising that the music of Rough for Radio I has a personality. On one level, it is only the noise of a radio. On another level, it’s a living, organic creature. To capture this ‘living’ quality, the show’s musicians are encouraged to improvise around the score every night.

For its Cambridge run, Rough for Radio I will be set to original music by Jeff Carpenter. A recent Cambridge graduate and a virtuoso composer, Carpenter was involved in 28 productions at Cambridge; amongst other projects, he produced an updated version of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, composed music for the Footlights Pantomime and Footlights Spring Review, and wrote several critically acclaimed original musicals. Jeff Carpenter’s Bereavement: The Musical was nominated for Best New Musical and Best New Lyrics in the 2012 Musical Theatre Matters Awards

Beckett’s script is a challenge. He provides no music, and offers only laconic stage-directions for the eleven snatches of sound produced by ‘Music’ and ‘Voice’ (eg. “Faint… brief… breaking off and resuming together”). Jeff Carpenter has taken this challenge full-on, producing an original score that follows Beckett’s directions to the letter. Throughout Rough for Radio I, Music and Voice slowly shudder towards death, only coming together for their “last gasps.”

For this production, the words that Voice sings have been taken from Fox’s speeches in Rough for Radio II. Voice and Fox are similar characters; they are both suffering creatures, who are coaxed into speech only with difficulty. Both represent aspects of the creative process, and the difficulty of summoning something out of nothing. In producing the score, Jeff Carpenter was aided by Rosie Hayes, a Cambridge graduate and classically-trained musician who has produced academic research on music in Beckett’s writing.

Director’s Notes (Tristram Fane Saunders):

“It’s amazing that this hasn’t happened already. I spoke to the Beckett Estate’s representative at Curtis Brown, and although they couldn’t confirm the full performance history for both of these plays, they couldn’t find any records of any previous UK stagings.”

“I wanted people to experience these strange, beautiful plays in their intended medium – sound. I read Beckett’s comments about how any sight would be too much, and took them to heart. A conventional production would “kill” these plays – if you can see Fox in Rough II, or put a face to the voice in Rough I, something would be lost. “So the solution we came up with is unusual, but perfectly in keeping with Beckett’s wishes: the audience are all blindfolded. They arrive at a designated meeting point, then are led by the stage-crew to the door of the venue. Outside the door, they are blindfolded and led inside. They will hear music and voices coming out the darkness around them, but see nothing. It’s going to be unique.

“The rehearsal process has been intense. This is a rehearsed reading, not a stage-play, and the actors will all have scripts on the night, but they know the plays so well that scripts are hardly necessary.

“One of our actors, Luke Sumner, is also very active in the Cambridge Footlights, and has been struggling to juggle rehearsals. But I’m lucky to be working with a fantastically talented cast, who are all dedicated to the show. We’re playing to an audience who almost certainly haven’t heard these plays, and may never hear them again, so it’s vital that we get it right.

“Radio and theatre are both huge parts of my life, so it’s fantastic to be able to combine them in this way. I work as a freelance radio critic for Radio Times, and I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on how Tom Stoppard’s radio plays have been influenced by Beckett. I’ve acted in Cambridge before (I’ve played Richard in Richard III, Mephistopheles in Doctor Faustus and Valentine in Arcadia), but this is my first time directing. It’s exciting and terrifying at the same time.” [Read More]

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 RhysTranter.com is a personal journal offering commentary and analysis across literature, film, music, and the arts.

One thought on “Samuel Beckett: Roughs

  1. Really interesting stuff! The radio plays are entirely underrated in my eyes. I’m currently writing about the radio plays and I’m curious about the BBC audience survey. Is this information from the archive? It would be incredibly handy to use a point of reference. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

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