Fragments @ Young Vic, London

cast list
Jos Houben
Kathryn Hunter
Marcello Magni

directed by
Peter Brook

Beckett fans have seldom had it better. The playwright’s centenary programme at the Barbican was an utter delight; with even this trawl set aside, there have been commanding reprisals of Waiting for Godot, Krapp’s Last Tape and Happy Days in recent months, and a splendid exhibition at the Pompidou centre is but a train-ride away.

The Young Vic continues this venerable trend, and Peter Brook delves deeper into the Beckett canon than many theatre-goers will be accustomed to.

Fragments is a programme of five short plays or, to be more accurate, four short plays and an expositional prose piece, adapted for stage. These works are ostensibly consumed with Beckett’s great obsessions: the ironic dual-nightmare of isolation and inter-dependence; decay and transience; repetition imposing a simulacrum of order and continuity.

These themes are pared-down, refined reduced to an essence, a flavour. The Nobel Laureate’s best remembered characters from those afore-mentioned, most celebrated plays loom large over this little stage, and there is considerable joy to be derived from discerning lines of genealogy and development. But there are also a good number of laughs deep visceral guffaws which, at best, underline just what Brook and company have achieved; at worst, on the odd occasion, they risk undermining the impact of the writing.

Rough for Theatre I kicks-off proceedings admirably. Jos Houben and Marcello Magni play unnamed characters, the former in a wheelchair and the latter blind. Together, they form an uneasy alliance the eyes and legs of a united being. Their cooperation is threatened by their drive to independence, to individuality, and so there are shades here of Hamm and Clov, Didi and Gogo, and Lucky and Pozzo. The characters are strikingly rendered and touching in their economy which may actually exceed that of their famous forebears.

Houben and Magni are a formidable partnership. Their later sequence a mime, Act Without Words II is a music hall riot. On display here is Beckett’s dissolution of time the searing, unpunctuated daylight of Happy Days. In turn, each character rises according to ritual, attends to their directionless labour and returns to sleep, having only secured their continuity. Fittingly, the scene doesn’t so much end as it is abandoned.

But every triumph is offset. In a recent interview, Brook stated that he is not interested in authors with a point of view that fine delineation impedes ambiguity and audience participation. In his controversial treatment of Rockaby, he oversteps the mark and substitutes ambiguity for plain confusion.

This is certainly no fault of Kathryn Hunter, whose performance as the timid, moribund old woman is affective and beautiful. The problem instead lies with Brook’s disregard for the demands of the text. Gone is the sole stipulated prop a rocking chair and with it the symbolic link between birth and death. Furthermore, by having Hunter recite what was intended to be a pre-recorded monologue, indexed to the movement of the character in her chair, the rhythm of the piece is all wrong. The sense of a legitimate interaction with the self is lost, and as such the piece is reduced to a study of senility, robbed of universality.

There are issues, too, with the finale. The high-jinks of Act Without Words II spill over into Come and go, a piece which though funny aught to be invested with a certain horror. This is perhaps inevitable when two of the characters are presented in drag a demand necessitated by the compact cast but one can’t help but wonder if a more appropriate text could have been selected. Beckett’s ghouls suffer an excess of personality.

That aside, Come and Go remains a high point in an evening characterised by quality acting and polish, and a remarkable courage of conviction.

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