Over the past month, I have made two trips to the “Theatre Bouffes du Nord” with my friends to see two performances of short plays by Mr. Samuel Beckett. You know it is the Beckett centenary now, so there are many performances of his works in Paris. In London, I’ve heard, Harold Pinter is making probably his last ever stage performance in Krapp’s Last Tape.
Beckett of course is in that very small group of people who were successful in a language other than the language of their birth. Nabokov comes to mind. Beckett translated his own books back to English, from French; he said that process improved his style. He wanted to pare things down, to produce words which were simple and unaffected. Passing his words through the hand-wringer of a double translation perhaps was a way to achieve this.
The Theatre Bouffes du Nord is itself an amazing venue. From outside, arriving from metro “porte de la chapelle” (behind the Gare du Nord) one sees, on the other side of the street, what seems to be an ordinary row of Parisian apartments. Tall narrow buildings. Except that at the first floor level one sees the words “Theatre” and of course there is normally a large crowd of people standing outside, waiting. The theatre is completely integrated into the apartments around it. Or rather, the apartment buildings have grown up around the theatre. It was derelict for twenty years before Mr. Peter Brook took over in the early seventies. And did not restore anything! The theatre was left exactly as it had been; the seats were changed, but the rest remained untouched. One imagined that a lot of things had been said and seen and heard inside those walls, ancient tired air, old emotions…
The space inside the theatre is strange, and it is not like any theatre I have been to before. I am reminded a little of the unfinished Cathedrale de Beauvais: the stage is foreshortened, and the building itself is very very high. Each row of balcony reaching up to the domed glass ceiling is encrusted with centuries old intricately carved stucco. The stage is narrow, and there is almost no distance between it and where the audience sits. One is actually sitting on the stage. And behind that, there are tall walls painted a rough sienna brown.
Each performance I saw there lasted one hour and consisted of three short pieces written by Mr. Beckett. The very first was classic Beckett: a man who can’t walk (he is confined to a wheelchair) and a man who can’t see (he has his cane) confront each other. Both need the other in a very fundamental way — to see and move — but neither can stand to be with the other. What to do? They cannot escape. They run away from each other but always return. They are tender and violent. Blasts of absurd vaudevillian Beckettian humour provide relief for what would otherwise be an insupportable situation…
I won’t describe the other five pieces here. Just to mention that I felt that the first evening’s performances I found perhaps more interesting, and certainly easier to follow for me (well okay I admit, one of three pieces was without words – remember all this is in French!). But what was most amazing about the first evening was the lighting. Long rays of light fell on the sienna walls of the theatre. Somehow they seemed to change colour! At one time, they were a deep red, the colour of morning, the dawn. But then there was a clear colour, ochre; the soil of tuscany perhaps a little further away. A midday sun. This all happened before my eyes, but in a way I didn’t fully understand, I couldn’t really comprehend what was happening.
At several times all the lights went out in the theatre, we found ourself in a profound darkness. But not all that profound; from the high domed window, a weak pale glow filtered in from the night-time clouds over Paris, illuminated by the light from a million streetlights. Then a spotlight would come on, and it would illuminate a human face. Behind that, the century-old shape-shifting walls of the theatre. In that darkness, it was quite remarkable how one’s entire universe shrinks right down to that one point of reference, a human face in the void. I listened hard to each word because remember there was the filter of language to be traversed. Time, of course, stretched out in a very curious manner, under this weight of light and concentration. The hour was finished much sooner than one might have thought it would.
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