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Peter Brook and Samuel Beckett ought to be a match made in minimalist heaven. Beckett, always attracted by the rigorous writerly discipline demanded by short-form plays, spent most of his late career distilling complex visions to indelible stage images, delivered in ever-more compact forms. Brook, in his recent work, has also favored starkness and simplicity: bare settings, deceptively plain compositions.
Given this potential, Fragments—a haphazardly assembled collection of five Beckett shorts directed by Brook and collaborator Marie–Hélène Estienne, now running at the Baryshnikov Art Center—comes as an unpleasant surprise. True, the stage is suitably spare—a few furnishings scattered around a bare platform. But that’s where the affinity between director and playwright ends. Instead, we get the wrong kind of simplicity: In search of a more uplifting Beckett, Brook tinkers with the plays, diluting their fierce intelligence. Fragments is Beckett for People Who Can’t Handle Beckett.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m no purist. Though Beckett himself was notoriously persnickety about the absolute necessity of performing his plays, with their exacting stage directions, precisely as written, I can certainly imagine cases in which a director might depart from the pattern and still achieve artistic success (Paul Chan’s Katrina-themed Godot comes to mind). But since Beckett’s texts, particularly the short ones, are not just scripts providing dialogue and suggested moves, but meticulously plotted blueprints for the total theatrical event, you better take the design of the original into account before you start knocking down walls, lest the whole edifice collapse around you. Fulfilling its title, Fragments knocks its plays to bits—and not in the revealing, deconstructive way.
Brook and Co.’s rendition of Rockaby, one of Beckett’s last plays, and one of his most unsparing, is an object lesson in thoughtless demolition. In Beckett’s original, an old crone hunches in a rocking chair with a life of its own, listening intently to a recording of her own voice as she obsessively recounts a circling story of slow withdrawal from the world outside. The metronome-like movement of the chair measures her dwindling life with mechanical precision, suggesting other faltering rhythms—her pulse, her breath. When it stops, we know she’s stopped. Meanwhile, the diminishing repetitions of the text show a mind slowly crumpling inwards and winding down to nullity—consciousness on the edge of dissolution. Beyond doubt, Rockaby is one of Beckett’s most pitiless creations (one of its last lines is “Fuck life”)—but why stage it if you can’t bring yourself to confront it head on?
Brook clearly couldn’t. He removes the self-rocking chair, the voiceover, and the dialogue between past and present selves, leaving performer Kathryn Hunter chirping the text while perched on a plain seat—which she promptly gets up from, doing a little pointless pantomime (she rocks the chair) and spoiling the play’s dynamics, to no discernible interpretive purpose. It’s as if Brook decided Godot should show up after all. Throughout, Hunter’s hiccupping, sing-song delivery makes nonsense of the play’s precise, harsh meter, dismissing Beckett’s stark symbolic figure as a dotty dowager, shrugging apologetically to the audience for repeating herself—symbolism is just senility. (Hunter’s desultory performance of Neither, a haunting prose-poem, later in the evening is a non-event—pablum).
None of Brook’s other revisions are quite as damaging, but all seem similarly designed to render Beckett more innocuous, amplifying vaudeville aspects at the expense of harsher truths. All the playlets get cheered up and flattened out. Jos Houben and Marcello Magni, the additional two members of the three-performer ensemble, are gifted physical comedians—but since they’re both of the waggish, cutesy school of clown, incapable of delivering the frayed mordancy required of Beckett’s vagrants, their virtuosity ends up detrimental to the production.
This becomes especially clear as they enact the can’t-live-with-him-can’t live-without-him fable of Rough for Theatre I, an early work that looks like a sketch for Endgame. A one-legged tramp in a wheeled cart meets a blind tramp sawing at a fiddle. They make a brief alliance, each providing the other with what he lacks—the blind leading the lame; the lame seeing for the sightless. But their codependence quickly becomes mutual torment. They can’t bear each other, and can’t bear to be alone. Adept at the lazzi, but inattentive to the language, the duo stage the piece’s pitching between attraction and repulsion as sitcom squabbling.
Similarly, the pair performs the comic choreographies of Act Without Words II, a mostly soundless mime piece, with aplomb, while also pithing it of its larger implications. In the play, two scruffy gents with opposing life philosophies get prodded awake from the giant trash bags they sleep in to display their individual coping mechanisms while stepping through time-lapse versions of a day’s numbing routine. One, a religious fellow, prays and broods at each fresh setback (his breakfast carrot tastes gross; his trousers are hard to step into); the other, brisk, cheerful and godless, just gets on with it. In Beckett’s pragmatic view, those with higher expectations of life’s purposes only get more disappointed, the importance of inevitable setbacks enlarged by the satisfying illusion of cosmic injustice.
Here, though, the brooder expresses his exasperation at God’s absence with a wheezy little sigh—his existential sadness is scruffy-wuffy cartoon petulance. The motto of Brook’s version is something like: Some folks are lovably cranky, and some people are sprightly and sunny! And Brook can’t resist tweaking the ending: During his final bout of divine supplication, grumpy suddenly perks up, a brief smile lighting his face—Godot arrives once again.
Whatever else you might say about it, Come and Go—another late play, and the final piece on the bill—is not a Monty Python-esque sketch about men dressed up as funny old ladies being bitchy to each other. The play’s reunion of three former schoolmates, now elderly, in the place where they used to play as children—still cruel and kind to each other in the same ways they were decades before—is an eerie parable about the ways time does and doesn’t change us, for worse and better. But with the two male members of the company in biddy-drag, and Hunter lolling her eyes and acting the geezer, we get a rest-home sequel to Mean Girls, all the play’s poignancies lost amid mugging and bargain-basement laughs.
In his program note, Brook praises Beckett as a dauntless artist who peered into the “filthy abyss of human existence” while rejecting “pious consolations” in his “constant, aching search for meaning.” Too bad Brook and his collaborators weren’t equally brave—instead, they’ve turned their backs on the hard-won results of Beckett’s agonizing search to whip up an evening of neutered, fluffy ersatz Beckett, riddled with pious consolations and artistic shortcuts. No one who loves the work of theater’s most uncompromising mind should have to stomach this shoddily made and startlingly amateurish production.
If Peter Brook’s name wasn’t on it, it’s unlikely Fragments would be anywhere near New York at all.