Mouth on Fire’s Samuel Beckett at the Focus

First, let me declare an interest. When I was Chair of Irish PEN, Cathal Quinn, Artistic Director of Mouth on Fire, dedicated the opening night of last autumn’s show Tyranny in Beckett to PEN’s annual International Day of the Imprisoned Writer. Second, I’m working on developing a play on blasphemy with Mouth on Fire, consistent with Mouth on Fire’s track record of staging human rights plays, such as Beckett’s Catastrophe.

Before Vanishing, Mouth on Fire’s latest celebration at the Focus Theatre, is a performance of four Beckett plays in English, Ohio Impromptu, Footfalls, That Time and Come & Go. The fourth play is also performed in Irish, in the  world premiere of Gabriel Rosenstock’s translation Teacht is Imeacht.

Nick Devlin and Colm O’Brien gave a haunting, resolute and striking (literally) performance of Ohio Impromptu. I wondered how Colm’s knuckles could bear the intermittent forceful, astutely-timed knocking on the table, marking beats in the narrative, beautifully articulated by Nick’s gut-level portrayal of one of the most personal characters in the Beckett canon. The staging and lighting were superb, the two characters seated at a dimly-lit table on an otherwise blacked-out stage, a three-dimensional live Vermeer, without the colour. Black and white, gaunt and heart-rending, it relentlessly laid bare human loneliness.

Melissa Nolan, co-founder of Mouth on Fire, gave an extraordinary performance of the 40-year-old daughter caring for her mother, played in her gorgeous speaking tones by Abbey Theatre and RTE actor Geraldine Plunkett, who is at no point seen during Footfalls, her resonant discourse issuing from a far and blacked-out corner of the stark, dark stage. Costume designer Elizabeth Tierney chose a highly effective dress for Melissa’s character May, with the sound of the hem dragging along the stage floor accentuating the desolation of an adult child who has never lived her own life. Melissa played the part with truth, rawness and sensibility. She wept, carrying the audience with her in a stark and poignant realization of May’s transient life not lived. Melissa is master of the pause, as she asks, without bitterness or complaint, if she can respond to the next of the many needs of her aging mother – pause –  ‘again’.

The staging of That Time worked dramatically. Everything is black and unseen. Then, startling the audience, a light appears on the face of a old man with madly wild hair so high up off the stage and close to the ceiling that one wonders how this disembodied face got up there or stays up there. Played superbly by Marcus Lamb, wearing a spectacular gravity-defying wig by Val Sherlock, the face tells the whole story, evincing pain, recollection, internal rancour and debate. Marcus masterfully held our attention, a study in mime, unspeaking except for the occasional well-timed existential groan, to the accompaniment of a fast-paced taped  flow of consciousness monologue. And then, at the end, after all the words and inner anguish are spent, comes that delightful and unexpected beaming smile!

Jennifer Laverty, Melissa Nolan and Geraldine Plunkett deftly played the trio in Come & Go and its Irish version, performed immediately afterwards, Teacht is Imeacht. The energy of the play is lighter, its comedy more evident, there is colour in the heavily-painted lipstick and attire, yet at its heart are unspoken-about, secret, whispered  female illnesses and, of course, mortality. The Irish version was easy to follow, and as well-played and articulated as the English. Both versions were delightful. Costumes by Yvette Gilbert were aptly chosen, reinforcing the play’s patterns of action, repeated inter-reaction and mirrored dialogue.

Especial commendation to Becky Gardiner for her lighting and stage design throughout, but especially for That Time which pushed the possibilities of theatre to its limit. Directed by Cathal Quinn and produced by Melissa Nolan, Before Vanishing finishes at the Focus Theatre on Saturday 21 April.

Bookings: Tickets: €12, €10 and €8.