The pandemic (please don’t stop reading) has sent actor Bill Irwin back to his award-winning show On Beckett, evidence that even an insatiably murderous virus may have an upside. Irwin’s career-long immersion in the writings of Uncle Bleakness have prompted more than one fan to ask whether he shares the Nobel Prize winner’s dark, dark view of the human condition. If Irwin sometimes wavered in his answer, he wavers less in these months of COVID-19.
“I can say with conviction, ‘No, I do not like despair,’” he says to the camera that has inserted itself into his very intimate conversation with Samuel Beckett. “But it’s thrilling when heroes take off against it.”
That revelation is just one of several that stand out in On Beckett/In Screen, a marvelous adaptation of the show he developed over several seasons and fully introduced two years ago at the Irish Repertory Theatre. Irwin has two major productions of Waiting for Godot to his credit, and Beckett in his bloodstream. He set out to share with audiences his search for how the Irish playwright who composed in French and disturbed the universe went from “off-off-off-off Broadway” to a popularity that found its way to “commencement speakers, corporate PowerPoint speakers and greeting-card publishers.”
Irwin brings to his journey intellectual thirst, thespian rigor and a master clown’s gift for physical transformation. To deliver a scorching excerpt from Beckett’s novel Watt, he has merely to push back the collar of his black suit jacket, secure the top button of his shirt, and seemingly separate head from neck to create the illusion of a beatnik bobblehead -- Yogi Berra crowding the home plate of Existentialism -- in making the case for a distinctly American interpretation.
“I love that passage,” he says, and the way “it invokes violence. What is the place of cruelty and violence in the human equation? The bleakness is the way we treat each other.”
The elegant film, which will be streamed over the next several days and deserves as wide an audience as possible, is directed by M. Florian Staab and Irwin, with Brian Petchers behind the camera and in the editing room. The camera work is particularly striking, in part because of the minimalist setting by Charlie Corcoran and exquisite lighting by Michael Gottlieb, but also because Irwin, for much of the show, refuses to engage directly with the camera despite the prevalence of close-ups. The effect is to shape the event as a mostly internal dialogue between actor and author to which we are privy. And when, near the end, during an extended tour of Waiting For Godot that is by turns hilarious and revelatory, Irwin finally faces us directly, we feel fully engaged with the discourse. It’s deeply moving.
When I saw On Beckett at the invaluable Irish Rep, I felt that too much was given over not to Beckett but to Irwin, whose New Vaudevillian clowning is at once miraculous and crowd-pleasing. Perhaps it’s a trick of memory, perhaps his tinkering for the film during a time when the virus has made recluses of us all caused him to rethink those sections. Whatever the case, the Beckett/Irwin immersion is now in seamless balance, and the result is exhilarating.
Performances will take place Tuesday November 17 at 7pm; Wednesday November 18 at 3pm and 8pm; Thursday November 19 at 7pm*; Friday November 20 at 8pm; Saturday November 21 at 3pm* and 8pm; and Sunday November 22 at 3pm. All times are EDT. *These performances will feature captions.