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Beckett on Film

Review Written by: Joe Earp
Film: A
Video/Audio/Extras: A-/B/F

Directed by: Pearse Lehane
Written by: Pearse Lehane
Based on the plays by: Samuel Beckett
Produced by: Larry Masterson
Starring: Stephen Brennan, Michael Colgan, John Crowley, Paola Dionisotti, Atom Egoyan
Buy it!, Buy it, rent it or skip it: Rent it

Although Samuel Beckett is the undisputed master of surrealist theatre, his plays are often considered too 'intellectual' for most. In recent years especially he has earned the unfortunate tag of 'being boring.' It's a sad truth that such a master has been ignored while other less talented playwrights have begun to hog the spotlight. So thank God for the new box set Beckett on Film. Seeing as no one seems to stage the master surrealist's plays anymore, this carefully assorted selection of DVD's is a wonderful way of watching several theatrical classics without having to hunt around for a nearby independent theatre.

Many of the films' critics have argued that it is foolish to put Beckett's plays on the screen. Every cut is said to be against what Beckett stood for, a decision the audience would never be allowed to make if they were watching the play live. That said, most of Beckett's plays work surprising well on film. Maybe it's the quality of the directors on show, some of whom include Atom Egoyan, David Mamet, Karel Reisz and the famous artist Damien Hirst. All are master craftsmen, and all attempt to add some kind of visual interest to Beckett's classic works.

All of the films are impressive, although some stand out weeks after being watched. Mamet's Catastrophe for example, works amazingly well. The play centers on a theatre director and his assistant as they prepare an old, wizened man for a new production. However as the scene progresses the dialogue slips into the absurd and we soon realize that there is something deeply unsettling going on. The old man seems more like a prisoner than an actor and the director soon begins to tell his assistant that he wants 'more nudity.' Upon reading a synopsis its easy to assume that the scene would only really work on stage. It is true to a certain extent that maybe if we were watching the play live we would begin to question our role as viewers. However Mamet overcomes this small obstacle by setting the scene itself in an empty theatre. The camera spends most of the time in the stalls, positioned directly at eye level. As a result the audience feels as though they are actually in the theatre instead of watching a film.

Another exceptional play adaptation is Karel Reisz's amazing Act Without Words 1. The scene, as the title suggests, is completely devoid of dialogue. All actions are mimed to great effect. Instead of relying on physical humour, Beckett constructs an allegory in his silence all about life itself. The main character struggles desperately to grab a bottle of water just beyond his reach as he literally burns to death in the middle of a wide, expansive desert. Not a word is said, implying maybe that spoken dialogue is useless. Really as human beings all we care about is our own survival. Culture is nothing: a thin veil that can be stripped away without too much effort. Reisz clearly realises this and subtly breaks the play down to its bare bones. Instead of setting the play in a 'real' desert, the director masterfully turns the locale into an artificial prison: a man made structure that simply looks like the outside world. The sky is clearly a painted back-drop and the sand is a fierce, unnatural orange colour.

The music too is exceptional and adds a real emotional depth to the amazing play. In fact this is Reisz's best work, although it is only a short subject. One of the other exceptional pieces is Damien Hirst's Breathe. The most controversial of all of Beckett's plays, Breathe is an absurdly simple work: a character walks onto a stage covered in garbage, takes a deep breath of air and then leaves without a word. And that's it. The whole play.

High art at its finest, eh?

In all seriousness, Hirst really does create an interesting piece with this scenario, one of Beckett's weakest. Hirst, a famous British artist, alters the play slightly. In his version the character never steps on stage at all. Instead, the camera falls through a black void, eventually passing over a sea of rubbish and muck as a long drawn out breath fills the soundtrack. One of the play's major strengths is its simplicity (it could hardly be called 'complex' by any standards.) Because so little actually happens the audience can decide for themselves what the work actually means. I for one think the whole scene is a take on life itself. Beckett seems to be suggesting that's all existence is: one long-drawn out breath that really symbolizes nothing. In reality, we're only a blip in the history of the universe. Then again it could just be about a guy breathing.

You decide.

Not all of the plays are of high quality though. Come and Go is probably the weakest of the lot, thanks to exceptionally poor direction from John Crowley (Intermission). The basic premise centers around a group of three women, all of whom are meeting up after a few years of absence. As the play progresses, they all reveal a horrible secret about each other, leading the audience to believe that maybe there's something hiding under the surface, something terrible that we can't quite make out... Again, Come and Go is one of those plays open to interpretation. I for one think that it is a deeply metaphorical fable about how we lie to each other, and even ourselves. The meeting initially seems perfect but sooner or later we see the cracks emerge and this is really where the play becomes more universal. Its an exploration of all of our lives: how we all want to pretend everything is perfect, when really we're rotting away under the surface...

However the play is unfortunately ruined by Crowley's ham-handedness. Although there are some nice touches (characters eyes are obscured by their over-sized hats) the director makes a fatal mistake: the camera moves far too often. Although this sounds quite simple, it is a fatal flaw. By zooming and panning and dollying we are immediately reminded that we are watching a film and thus are removed from the work. This is a real shame as it would have been nice to see a better director handle the piece in a more interesting way. Maybe we could have had an exceptional film. Nevertheless it would take someone like Michael Bay to mess up such a wonderful script to the point of it being a truly awful cinematic experience. At the moment we're left with a wasted opportunity: a film that could have been exceptional but is simply average. Shame, isn't it?

The extras on the DVD's are equally disappointing. For a box-set you'd expect an interesting array of featurettes or interviews. Unfortunately however all we get is a boring little description of each of the plays and its themes. Worst of all several critics try to analyse the plays and fail rather miserably. One theatre veteran even tries to suggest that Act Without Words is a depiction of the Nazis' rise to power. How this is possible, nobody knows... Anyway, I've said it before and I'll say it again: Beckett is so interesting we don't really care about the special features. The master stylist manages to shock us again and again and luckily enough there are a suitable number of gems in this package to make the whole thing worthwhile. Hopefully this dvd release will force people to re-evalute Beckett. Maybe, just maybe, he'll become a hot topic again...

But maybe not.

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