On a cold Sunday evening last December, I walked down through Cork City, past the Christmas lights and the ferris wheel, and steeply up Barrack Street in anticipation of much darker scenes. Gaitkrash were staging an evening of late Beckett works (Footfalls, Film, and Rockaby), set within the extraordinary delapidated upper rooms of Mr. Bradley’s bar. The audience numbers were restricted to twelve, so I felt both fortunate and a little trepidatious, not quite knowing what would happen when faced with Beckett’s bleakness at such close quarters.
We first waited in the snug, surrounded by the old décor that has survived the late Mr. and Mrs. Bradley. Mick O’Shea’s subtle sound piece kept the atmosphere quietly animated and off-kilter. When called, we then climbed to the colder upper rooms. In a tight shadowy space Irene Murphy had installed a cluster of small illuminated worlds, on shelves and in cavities under raised floorboards. These small enigmatic groupings of everyday objects pointed to a meaningfulness that was withheld, and invited the production of an imaginary significance that was out of proportion with their literal size.
Before long we were ushered up more steep stairs and into the roofspace. There, Bernadette Cronin stood in a greying white wedding dress, dramatically lit in the close space between the rafters. We found our places on makeshift seats only a few feet away, amidst sagging wallpaper and a kitschy religious pictures. Cronin, playing May, then began that strict, metronomic pacing of Footfalls (1975). In her 40s, May ‘has not been out since girlhood’ and confines herself to two repetitious activities: tending her sick mother and walking, backwards and forwards, again and again, in ‘a faint tangle of pale grey tatters’. Cronin’s movements were satisfyingly precise, unflowing, tightly bound and in pieces. Her delivery of Beckett’s intricately crafted text was compelling, although sometimes it was afforded more lyric license than perhaps Beckett himself would have allowed.
On the first floor again, a sound piece by Trace accompanied a rendering of Beckett’s Film (1964) by James McCann. Trace gleaned their sounds from the building itself by scratching, scraping and smoothing its physical texture, itself so loaded with imprints of the creaturely routines of everyday lives now past. Aligning nicely, McCann’s Film also used images shot in the Bradley house, amongst others. Corroded, manipulated, set to a Pop-inflected self-destruct, this digital footage overlaid the original Buster Keaton performance, still visible beneath. The effects were both disturbing and enlivening, with conceptual reflexivity and open inter-media experimentation valued over formal stringency.
To finish, Máirín Prendergast’s performance of Rockaby (1980) made Beckett’s chilling late play more humanly graspable. Given added charge by its poignant setting, Prendergast’s expressions were intense, startled, desperate. While the atmosphere of despair and alienation was certainly conveyed, for me the emotional demonstration of the performance had the effect, paradoxically, of making the play more palatable and less lacerating: as if the expressive clothing provided some warmth to a text that instead wanted to insist resolutely upon its own cold blood.
Intending to dedicate his unfinished and posthumously published Aesthetic Theory to Beckett, Theodor Adorno wrote that in his plays ‘The shabby, damaged world of images is the negative imprint of the administered world. To this extent Beckett is realistic.’ Beckett’s work might be seen as a window onto the bleak affects of our disenchanted world, ones which are most often energetically pasted over with manufactured false consolations. The opposite of the warm, upbeat re-enchantment and accessibility prized by most official arts organisations, this experimental, generous and rare collaborative event plugged Beckett back into precise points in the contemporary world to both critical and fascinating effect.