How It Is (Part 1)

imageConor Lovett and Stephen Dillane; Photo by Tristram Kenton

How It Is (Part 1) by Samuel Beckett – Print Room at the Coronet, London W11

The Print Room’s permanent home at the Coronet Theatre, Notting Hill, is the most atmospheric in London. In Gare St. Lazare’s astonishing staging of the first third of Samuel Beckett’s 1964 novel ‘How It Is’, the worn and flaking auditorium becomes a powerful presence. With the audience seated on the apron of the stage, looking back at the circle and the balcony seats (the stall level is now the basement bar) the theatre is turned in on itself and becomes a setting of decaying beauty.

‘How It Is (Part 1)’ is also a piece about decaying, but surviving. It was Beckett’s final novel, first published as ‘Comment C’est’ in 1961, the same year as ‘Happy Days’ and, like Winnie, features a protagonist stuck in the mud. It shares its unpunctuated streams of consciousness with the earlier novels of ‘Trilogy’. It also has three parts – ‘before Pim’, ‘with Pim’ and ‘after Pim’, and is narrated by a man crawling through mud. Putting it on stage is a huge undertaking, requiring prodigious feats of memory for the actors tasked with 105 minutes of entirely uncompromising prose. Gare St. Lazare, based in Cork, has developed a staging of the just the first part of the novel before the nameless man meets ‘Pim’. Their production is meticulous, demanding, and engrossing – a tour-de-force.

Three actors appear, each delivering Beckett’s looping, repetitive, stripped back language in waves of introspection. Conor Lovett’s Irish accent seems to match the complex rhythms of the piece. He makes Beckett sound the way we imagine he should, while Stephen Dillane’s delivery is counter-intuitively English, like a slightly annoyed schoolteacher pouring out his soul. The contrast bringing a fascinating richness of interpretation to the work. Who is this man who tells us everything, nothing in his life except a sack of tinned food and the contents of his head?

The third performer, Mel Mercier, has a smaller part as a third voice which renders the other two incomprehensible, and is also the sound designer. His work creates an unsettling setting, representing the nothingness that encloses every moment of this play with a constantly varying soundscape of white noise and interference and rumbles. Director and designer Judy Hegarty Lovett uses the full range of the circle and balcony seats, the actors appearing and disappearing concealed and revealed by smoke and lights. This  staging works conceptually, as Beckett’s narrator turns all his intention back on himself, and the audience gaze is also reversed. It also turns the spotlight, literally, on to the worn Victorian auditorium, a space heavily loaded with memory.

Gare St. Lazare has brought a treat to London, an exacting and difficult evening, but some of the highest quality theatre in Britain and Ireland at the moment. There are no compromises, and it is telling that more than fifty years on, Beckett’s work is tough enough for ten people, on the night I saw the show, to walk out. It is not an easy show to walk out of, unless you do not care about the amount of disruption you cause, but the actors did not blink. As a culture we are still trying to come to terms with Beckett’s writing, and ‘How It Is (Part One)’ is an important step in revealing the quality and depth of his work. As the nameless narrator says to excuse his obsessive accounts, “these details in preference to nothing”.

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