Samuel Beckett’s Embers is concerned with how memory fades, says Richard Fitzpatrick
THE Dublin theatre company, Pan Pan, who have produced some of Ireland’s most original theatre since their foundation in 1991, are staging Samuel Beckett’s radio play, Embers, as part of the Edinburgh International Festival this weekend. They produced another Beckett radio play, All That Falls, in 2011.
Beckett denied the Swedish filmmaker, Ingmar Bergman, permission to do Embers in 1963. But Pan Pan passed muster with his estate.
The play is set strikingly inside a four-metre-high skull made from 200 pieces of birch plywood, while the sound is delivered through 600 speakers.
The play stars Andrew Bennett and Áine Ní Mhuirí.
“In our case, we haven’t changed a single dot of Embers,” says Gavin Quinn, director and co-founder of Pan Pan. “We’re performing the full text. We’re simply making an environment, or atmosphere, whereby people can listen to Embers.
“It’s a different thing, because, originally, it was a radio play, and to listen to a radio play is quite a specific event, which we are putting into the theatre. You don’t see the actors. You see them through the eyes of the skull. The skull just makes an experience for the piece.”
Embers is difficult and obscure. It opens with the sounds of the sea, and the footfalls of Henry, the play’s protagonist, on shingles, and is influenced by Killiney, where Beckett stayed. Henry tells himself stories and is tied to Ada by shared memories.
“I think what you come away with is the experience of the process of memory,” says Quinn. “You get that feeling of how memories can come at you in different volumes and in different loudness.
” For whatever reason, memory comes at you out of the ether, from anytime or place.
“In the text, the sea is a main trope for the piece. Henry is sitting on the strand, staring out at sea. The sound of the sea reminds him of his father, who may or may not have committed suicide by drowning himself. The sea is an environment that triggers memories.
“It’s a place where he used to walk and where one could imagine his father walking, triggered by the sounds of the stones and the shingles.”
Henry can’t bear to be without Ada, and he can’t bear to be with her, especially when she chats incessantly.
“That’s what hell will be like,” he ponders, “small chat to the babbling of Lethe about the good old days when we wished we were dead.”
Beckett was struggling to write a prose piece when he wrote Embers, which was produced for the BBC in 1959. It’s interesting to consider the cuts the BBC demanded from his original text. The broadcaster’s censor whipped out phrases like “trying to toast his arse” and “Christ!”. Although it divided critics, Embers won a Prix Italia award.
“What’s interesting about Beckett is that he had such integrity,” says Quinn. “He tried to put a plane over chaos from the beginning, right to the end. He kept at his task all the way through. He remained constant in creating his vision.”
nEmbers is at King’s Theatre, 2 Leven St, Edinburgh EH3 9LQ, Scotland, as part of a Culture Ireland showcase, 7pm, Saturday, Aug 24; 2pm and 7pm, Sunday, Aug 25. For more information, visit: www.cultureireland.ie.
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