Bringing Beckett to the Cork stage

A Cork couple, who have been exploring Samuel Beckett’s work for more than 20 years, are bringing one of his greatest literary achievements to the Everyman, writes COLETTE SHERIDAN
Bringing Beckett to the Cork stage

BRINGING BECKETT TO STAGE: Artistic Director of the Everyman Theatre, Julie Kelleher, and Artistic Directors of Gare St Lazare, Conor Lovett and Judy Hegarty Lovett, who bring ‘How it Is’ to the Everyman from February 1 to 2.

CONSIDERED to be one of Samuel Beckett’s greatest literary achievements, yet virtually unknown to the public, How It Is will have its world premiere at the Everyman from February 1 to 4.

Produced by Gare St Lazare Ireland (GSLI), the company, based in France and comprising Cork-born husband and wife team, Conor Lovett and Judy Hegarty-Lovett, has been on an exploration of Beckett’s work for more than 20 years. The couple, who are joint artistic directors of GSLI, pay particular attention to work that was not written for the stage.

How It Is, a novel, first published in French in 1961, has been described as a kind of purgatorial experience for the narrator. On a solitary journey, the narrator encounters another creature like himself. They form a couple but ultimately, the narrator is abandoned.

Directed by Judy, the actors are Conor and UK-based Stephen Dillane, who played Stannis Baratheon in the hit series Game of Thrones and also starred in recent TV hit The Tunnel.

With those characters killed off, Stephen has moved on and is focusing on the Beckett production, having had a desire to work with GSLI after seeing the company perform in New York. He chooses not to talk about Game Of Thrones, saying it is irrelevant to his current project.

This production is the culmination of the artistic residency that GSLI has had with the Everyman over the past couple of years. As well as developing How It Is, Conor and Judy, as part of the residency, have taken part in public conversations, revealing their process to local audiences and artists. They have also been mentoring up and coming theatre companies in their native city.

Judy describes the artistic director of the Everyman, Julie Kelleher, as “a beacon of light for us”.

“She very much knows our aesthetic. We approached her to work in the building. Julie has been very open to that. It has meant closing off the stage for week-long periods so that we could rehearse in the place itself,” said Judy.

Actor Stephen Dillane (How It Is) and Director Conor Lovett (How It Is) pictured at the launch of the Everyman's Spring/Summer programme. Picture Darragh Kane
Actor Stephen Dillane (How It Is) and Director Conor Lovett (How It Is) pictured at the launch of the Everyman's Spring/Summer programme. Picture Darragh Kane

Some years ago, Conor and Judy were invited by the drama department of CIT Cork School of Music to do a term of teaching at the school.

“It was a great way for us to re-engage with the city,” says Conor. “It woke us up to what is really happening in Cork. It feels like there is a lot of talent here with companies like Alsa, Broken Crow and Wandering Star. It’s really exciting. We were kind of buzzed by that. It gave us the idea of approaching the Everyman to do a residency.”

Judy says that through mentoring theatre folk in Cork, she has noticed “something which is interesting for us”, adding: “When we left Cork in the (recession-hit) ’80s, it was all about getting out of the city. But a lot of the young people that we have been mentoring have a totally opposite way of looking at being in Cork. They’re very much staying. It’s more than just an economic issue.

“The people we’ve mentored have a better sense of themselves and of a global community as well. They feel less isolated, despite being in a small city. I think people know now that they can compete in the same way as others by having a bigger reach.”

Conor notes that there is “a level of artistry and professionalism in the city now”.

“In the ’80s, you had the old guard, such as rep companies like the Everyman in Fr Mathew Hall. There was a transition. You had Corcadorca coming in. In fairness to them, they woke up and just said, ‘hey, we can do it. We don’t need others to come from elsewhere and we don’t need to go elsewhere. We can do it from Cork.’ I think Pat Kiernan’s legacy with Corcadorca is just phenomenal.”

Most recently, Corcadorca, the innovative company has seven nominations in the Irish Times Theatre Awards.

Ploughing their own furrow and performing all over the world, GSLI feels ready to stage How It Is.

“I’ve been wanting to do it for a very long time,” says Judy. “We’re doing one part of this three-part novel. I see it as more of a translation than an adaptation.”

It is going to be a verbatim performance. But is it very grim? After all, the narrator exists in the mud-dark and ends up in solitude after the other creature disappears. The text has drawn comparisons with Dante’s image of souls gulping mud in the Stygian marsh of the Inferno.

Stephen says that the experience of listening to the narrator isn’t grim.

“He might perceive his situation to be grim but you trust that there’s enough going on for an audience so that their experience won’t be grim.”

And in true Beckett style, there is humour in the piece, even if it is of the black variety.

For Judy, working on Beckett’s material “is about beginning with an appreciation of the text. If you have that, that goes a long way. And you want to share it. That’s kind of enough for me; a feeling that the text could and should be heard. It lends itself very well to being said aloud like a lot of Beckett’s prose works. The approach after that is to see what it starts telling you.”

Judy adds that How It Is is “absolutely a text that can work on multiple levels.”

Having showcased a performance of the text to 25 invited guests at the Lovett’s Mericourt Studios in France, Conor and Judy observed that the guests projected their own concerns into the piece.

“People were talking about emigration, war and identity,” says Judy. “At some point, someone said it’s kind of about everything because it really gives the full spectrum of existence and identity.”

Conor backs this up by saying: “It allows you to bring your own stuff to it.”

Beckett, he says, will be relevant for a long time to come.

Judy encourages people to take a chance on the production, with sound design by leading Irish composer, Mel Mercier.

“It’s a brilliant opportunity to meet Beckett’s work in a different way with very fine performances in a beautiful venue.”

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