Beckett’s prose is music to their ears
They’ve made a business of Samuel Beckett, exploring his work from the oft-produced “Waiting for Godot” to new imaginings of prose works not originally meant for the stage. But Conor Lovett and Judy Hegarty Lovett, the husband-and-wife cofounders of the theater company Gare St Lazare Ireland, are exploring another way to work with the oeuvre of the famed Irish playwright, who died in 1989.
Set it to music.
Directed by Hegarty Lovett, their new production is part monologue, part concert recital, and now, in its US premiere at the Paramount Mainstage, part art exhibit. And while Beckett’s words are its driving force, the playwright’s voice is really one among several that commingled to create the final product.
The piece, dubbed “Here All Night,” is based on three of Beckett’s prose works: the short story “First Love” plus novels “Watt” and “The Unnamable.” Composer Paul Clark wrote original music to accompany the words, inspired by references to music in the original texts. Lovett, an actor well-practiced in transitioning Beckett’s prose works to the stage, performs along with soprano Melanie Pappenheim, fiddler Cleek Schrey, and a chorus of six women.
Gare St Lazare Ireland is known for performing Beckett straight to the letter. Does this represent a departure from its traditionalist reputation?
“This is not messing with Beckett,” Lovett says. “It’s working with him.”
Lovett speaks while seated at a round table in an ArtsEmerson office, high in Emerson College’s Tufte Performance and Production Center. Speaking softly and wearing a gray flannel blazer, he could easily be mistaken for one of the college’s professors.
He’s not an academic, but he’s made himself an expert in Beckett, discovering the playwright while Lovett was still a student and not yet considering a life in the theater.
This piece, which appeared in an earlier form at Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival last year, grew out of a 2006 project in which the company performed seven Beckett radio plays with original music composed by Clark. (Beckett calls for music in the radio plays but doesn’t identify specific pieces or even styles.) It got them thinking about references to music in the writer’s work — from details about a character overhearing a song to a bit of music Beckett wrote into “Watt,” a short but carefully syncopated “frog chorus” of three voices.
Moreover, there’s an inherent musicality in Beckett’s writing, Lovett says.
“He’s so rhythmic. When you’re performing some of his texts,” the actor says, “sometimes you find your foot tapping. Somehow the timing is just — his punctuation and the length of a sentence and the amount of clauses in a sentence — you don’t play it like you’re singing, but there’s rhythm. There’s something going on in there.”
Hegarty Lovett says Beckett’s original manuscripts are filled with revisions, a sign of the careful process behind his famously precise dialogue and prose. The director says she charts a movement in Beckett’s later prose work toward musicality.
“You see a kind of clear progression of that style, or of that intention — I think it’s an intention, it feels intended — to bring language closer to music, so that it is poetic, so that it sings, so that it’s musical,” she says, speaking on a Skype call from the couple’s home outside Paris.
The Boston production will be only the second iteration of the show to incorporate a multimedia installation by Irish writer and sculptor Brian O’Doherty called “Hello, Sam Redux, 2016.” A human form suspended in midair and framed by a “rope drawing” serves as the dominant element in the set of “Here All Night.” The other elements of the full installation, including audio listening stations and another performer, will be in place and open to the general public until midnight following the Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night performances, and during the afternoon on Friday.
O’Doherty’s piece is sure to add a particularly haunted feel to the onstage proceedings.
The result of the multifaceted collaboration behind “Here All Night” is a particularly thorough exploration of Beckett’s particular qualities, Hegarty Lovett says. “What you’ll be meeting as an audience when you see and experience this work is, I suppose, the full landscape of Beckett’s mind and thinking and style of writing, which can be quite detailed.”
Though Gare St Lazare Ireland’s repertoire is not restricted solely to Beckett — ArtsEmerson presented its adaptation of Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick” in 2011 (as well as its “Godot,” three years ago) — it’s heavily weighed toward him, making the playwright the key force behind the life’s work, thus far, of the company’s founders.
So, why Beckett?
Lovett takes a moment to reflect before answering.
“It’s that mix of great craftsmanship and a person who just had so much to express, artistically. I find the same thing with people like Beethoven or even Bob Dylan — these great artists whose work is so personal to their experience but because of this alchemy of craftsmanship and artistry and just human experience, we the audience see something in the work which is personal to us.”
And everybody needs a frog chorus, now and again.
Here All Night
Created by Judy Hegarty Lovett, Paul Clark, Conor Lovett, and Caoimhin O’Raghallaigh. Music composed by Paul Clark. Based on the prose of Samuel Beckett. Directed by Judy Hegarty Lovett. Presented by Gare St Lazare Ireland and ArtsEmerson. At Paramount Center Mainstage, Oct. 5-9. Tickets: $20-$80, 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org