Before Vanishing

'Footfalls' by Samuel Beckett, presented by Mouth on Fire. Photo: Futoshi Sakauchi

'Footfalls' by Samuel Beckett, presented by Mouth on Fire. Photo: Futoshi Sakauchi

'That Time' by Samuel Beckett, presented by Mouth on Fire. Photo: Futoshi Sakauchi

'That Time' by Samuel Beckett, presented by Mouth on Fire. Photo: Futoshi Sakauchi

'Come and Go'/'Teacht is Imeacht' by Samuel Beckett (trans. Gabriel Rosenstock), presented by Mouth on Fire. Photo: Futoshi Sakauchi

'Come and Go'/'Teacht is Imeacht' by Samuel Beckett (trans. Gabriel Rosenstock), presented by Mouth on Fire. Photo: Futoshi Sakauchi

For Beckett the attraction of the theatre as a medium was that “It deals with a fixed space and with people in that fixed space”. He is not referring here to the fixed space of the naturalistic drawing room or the Irish peasant kitchen set, but the theatrical space itself. On stage the theatrical event is tied to the present although it may refer to the past, and theatrical characters only live on stage whilst the lights illuminate them.  As such everything in the theatre is condemned to the now.

It is this sense of ‘fixity’ that is explored in the plays selected by Mouth on Fire for their latest Beckett showcase aptly named Before Vanishing. What is striking about this production is how these abstract plays that are faithfully performed by the company according to Beckett’s strict demands still manage to speak to the contemporary moment in Ireland.  Indeed, one could imagine them being submitted to Fishamble as part of their Tiny Plays for Ireland project which runs concurrent to this production in the building next door.  
Photo: Futoshi SakauchiThe evening began with Ohio Impromptu where two figures (Nick Devlin and Marcus Lamb), alike in appearance with long grey hair and dark cloaks, sit at right angles at a table stage right. One man reads aloud a sad tale of a man who reads a sad tale while the other listens and punctuates the rhythm of the narrative by knocking on the table.  Images of despair, retreat, loss, perseverance, endless repetition are all brought to mind in the words read aloud, compounded through the torturously controlled, precise movements of Devlin and Lamb as these two suffering souls.  Such images and feeling would seem to capture the current mood of the country that seems trapped in a continual austere present.
Footfalls followed next. A dishevelled woman named May (Melissa Nolan) is found pacing a small rectangle of light projected downstage left. Here, the attention to contrast and symmetry of Cathal Quinn’s selection and direction of the pieces is revealed: the all-female play stage left follows the all-male play situated stage right with the movement of Footfalls playing counterpoint to the stasis of Ohio Impromptu. With its presentation of a “forgotten” woman who has “not been out since girlhood” and who is haunted by a nameless voice (Geraldine Plunkett) that is not her own, it was hard not to think of the women of the Magdalene Laundries and the recent revelations of the horror of their confinement. With such emotive contemporary resonance, this piece was particularly powerful.
After an interval, That Time presented us with the head of an Old Man (Marcus Lamb) audibly breathing while three recorded voices projected from different parts of the stage recount aspects of the man’s youth, middle and old age. Due to the close proximity of the audience to the stage in The New Theatre the required effect that we see a head floating in the darkness of the stage was not achieved.  The audience could clearly see Lamb’s body draped in a black cloth standing on a chair. In its retrospection this play reflected current reassessments of the founding of the Irish state in this decade of remembrance.  The last line of That Time with its repeated reference to life as “come and gone in no time” served nicely to introduce the next play Come and Go.  
Photo: Futoshi SakauchiQuinn’s decision to have Come and Go and subsequently its Irish translation by Gabriel Rosenstock Teacht is Imeacht as the showpiece finale of the production is clearly signalled by the burst of bright colour on stage as the lights go up on the three ladies Ru (Geraldine Plunkett), Flo (Jennifer Laverty), and Vi (Melissa Nolan) in their violet, yellow and red long coats and wide brimmed hats sitting on a bench centre stage. The colours here are a relief from the dull blacks, greys and browns of the preceding pieces. In this ‘dramaticule’ as Beckett called it, we see each woman leave the bench while the other two speak about her but then they end united holding hands with Flo declaring she can feel the rings on their fingers despite there being no rings apparent.

For scholar and critic Hugh Kenner, Come and Go is “a play of what they do not say: of silence, of silences”. In this the play would seem to be concerned with the failure of language to adequately communicate. In Teacht is Imeacht such a theme begins to relate to the present status of the Irish language where it has failed to be revived as the primary spoken language of the people and yet it still haunts the culture, itself a ghost always on the point of vanishing but never quite disappearing.

In this fine production by Mouth on Fire we are reminded that Beckett’s plays have an enduring appeal as performance pieces that exploit the nature of the theatrical medium to maximum effect. The plays may offer little room for theatre practitioners to innovate but when done well according to the strictures that Beckett demands, they offer audiences limitless interpretations and can be surprisingly relevant. Let’s hope Mouth on Fire continue in their exploration of Beckett’s work, making his plays a permanent fixture on our theatrical calendar.

Ian R. Walsh is a lecturer in Drama in University College Dublin and has recently published his first book Experimental Irish Theatre, After W. B Yeats.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Before Vanishing by Samuel Beckett

5 -16 March 2013

Produced by Mouth on Fire Theatre Company
In The New Theatre

Before Vanishing: 'Ohio Impromptu', 'Footfalls', 'That Time', 'Come and Go', 'Teacht is Imeacht'


'Teacht is Imeacht' translated from Beckett’s 'Come and Go' by Gabriel Rosenstock


Directed by Cathal Quinn

Light and Sound: Audrey Rooney

Costumes: Yvette Gilbert and Elizabeth Tierney

With: Nick Devlin, Melissa Nolan, Marcus Lamb, Geraldine Plunkett