The theatre of Dead Centre has always been haunted: by the ghosts of Chekhov, Proust, Shakespeare, even, in Hamnet, Shakespeare’s son. So perhaps it’s a logical step that they have now given us a play performed by ghosts, or at least invisible actors.
The setting is a faithful rendering of Samuel Beckett and Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil’s wartime Paris apartment, from which they fled the Gestapo in 1942, and to which they returned for what Beckett would call his “siege in a room” – a period of creativity that produced his trilogy and Waiting for Godot.
The first thing we see is a typewriter, its carriage moving by itself. In our headphones (there’s a pair for everyone in the audience) we hear the tap-tap-tap of the keys. A cigarette will float in midair, a kettle spring from the hob as coffee is made. This is Samuel Beckett, voiced by Brian Gleeson, as he composes reports for the resistance. Poets, he tells Suzanne (Barbara Probst) are “uniquely qualified” for this task. “Condensing the world into lines that no one understands. I’ve been at it for years.”
Mark O’Halloran’s script is full of this kind of thing. Allusions and ironies that will have Beckett buffs nodding. But it’s also a portrayal of a couple under pressure, the threat of discovery personified by their landlady, Madame Karl (played with relish by Viviane De Muynck), and driven home by the petit guignol of the puppet show she performs for Sam and Suzanne, a captive audience on the couch they got from James Joyce.
The production intersperses its three acts with striking film footage: a super-close-up eyeball, or a montage of wartime Paris, figures disappearing before us. But at heart, it’s a puppet show. It’s quaint, and perhaps a little too imperfect, with its network of visible pulleys and occasional unnatural movements, to be truly magical. But it is worthy of its subject. Beckett himself was a master of elevating the gimmick to statement of artistic conviction. And so Dead Centre pull off a similar feat here. “Tell me where Beckett is!” screams a Nazi during an interrogation scene. Beckett’s Room is one attempt to locate him, via a portrait of absence, in the unreality that was postwar Europe.
Where Dead Centre’s other works fizz with ideas, Beckett’s Room is more meditative: an invitation into a private space that we might contemplate its significance. We are asked to imagine what it might have been like to write after Europe had destroyed itself. To write in the presence of all that absence, all those ghosts. Beckett’s great leap as an artist was to articulate that absurdity, with his tramps and down-and-outs, his despairing, reluctant survivors, his isolated individuals, certain of nothing except that the frameworks they once relied on to interpret the world no longer fit.
Such was his vision, and here is its crucible, Dead Centre seem to say. That they get closest to articulating this in a final speech not by Beckett but Suzanne is a daring flourish, which rightly emphasizes the practical and enabling presence she was in his artistic life.