ArtsEmerson’s ‘Here All Night’ captures the music and mystery of Samuel Beckett
As a writer and thinker, Samuel Beckett often operated at the boundary between silence and sound.
So does “Here All Night,’’ an eerily beautiful and hypnotic marriage of text, music and song that taps into the rhythms, the musicality, and the mystery of Beckett’s prose — and the ideas embedded within the resonant spaces of that prose.
As he unsparingly delineated the contours of our no-way-out human dilemma in his plays, novels, and short stories, Beckett invited us – forced us -- to consider our own absurdity. Often, though, his portraits of loneliness and solitude and his conjuring of an atmosphere of sinking dread were laced with a bone-dry humor that could be oddly warming. We’re all doomed, Beckett tells us; might as well enjoy a sardonic chuckle at our plight.
That complex tragicomic sensibility is woven through “Here All Night,’’ reflecting the deep understanding of Beckett possessed by director Judy Hegarty Lovett, who has helmed nearly 20 productions of his work, and her husband, actor Conor Lovett. They are the cofounders and chief creative forces behind Gare St. Lazare Ireland, the theater company that is presenting “Here All Night’’ through Sunday in Boston under the auspices of ArtsEmerson. (In 2013, ArtsEmerson presented Gare St. Lazare Ireland’s memorable production of Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,’’ and in 2011 presented the company’s “Moby Dick.’’ Both productions were directed by Judy Hegarty Lovett and starred Conor Lovett).
Upon entering the theater for “Here All Night,’’ the audience is confronted with an arresting image that looks like something out of HBO’s “Westworld’’: a human form suspended motionless in mid-air, surrounded by four pairs of wires that form a downward-plunging angle. It’s the handiwork of visual artist Brian O’Doherty.
Conor Lovett and soprano Melanie Pappenheim slowly circle that body, sometimes gazing across the distance at each other, seldom drawing close. Lovett skillfully delivers a monologue that ranges across questions of love, age, and the quandary of existence, consisting of excerpts from Beckett’s “Watt,’’ “The Unnamable,’’ “First Love’’ (“I lived of course in doubt, on doubt. . .’’), the radio play “Words and Music,’’ and “Malone Dies’’ (from which Lovett narrates a description of a sexual encounter between an elderly and inexperienced couple that is funny and tender at once).
His monologue is punctuated by Pappenheim’s recital-like performance of moodily entrancing songs and music, composed by Paul Clark. The lyrics to Clark’s songs – which are sometimes hard to make out – are drawn from Beckett’s work. The evening also includes songs with words and music by Beckett himself, as well as a couple of traditional tunes arranged by Clark. Lovett and Pappenheim are attired in dark clothing, as are the chorus of six female singers assembled upstage and the three musicians gathered downstage.
The contemplative stillness that pervades “Here All Night’’ suggests that director Hegarty Lovett has taken inspiration from a paradox one often senses in Beckett. On the one hand, the nonpareil Irish writer seemed to view silence as truth and speech as a kind of surrender, seemed to see words as inadequate to communicate the existential mess we’re in. (After a character in “First Love’’ describes how few songs he’s retained of the many he’s heard in his life, he abruptly declares: “This sentence has gone on long enough.’’).
On the other hand, “Here All Night’’ reminds us of the surgical skill with which Beckett wielded words, how he loved to turn them over and over like strange stones, arranging and rearranging them in new combinations, and how he seemed to view speech as one of the duties of being human and words as talismans we might clutch as we stumble toward the abyss.
Early on, Pappenheim sings a refrain, from Beckett’s novel “Watt’’: “We shall be here all night.’’ Those simple words will be heard repeatedly during the 80-minute production, sometimes with Pappenheim accompanied by the chorus, each time with a slightly different attitude, intonation, and meaning. The refrain registers variously as a resigned, matter-of-fact statement; as a despair-filled lament; as an expression of something like hope.
It’s fitting that this superb production christens ArtsEmerson’s newly named Robert J. Orchard Stage, formerly the Paramount Mainstage. Orchard is the pragmatic visionary who launched ArtsEmerson six years ago and swiftly made the presenting-producing organization a magnet for cutting-edge international works like “Here All Night.’’
HERE ALL NIGHT
Conceived and created by Judy Hegarty Lovett, Paul Clark, Conor Lovett, and Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh. Includes texts from Samuel Beckett’s “Watt,’’ “The Unnamable,’’ “First Love,’’ “Words and Music,’’ and “Malone Dies.’’ Directed by Judy Hegarty Lovett. Composer/musical director, Paul Clark. Production by Gare St. Lazare Ireland. Presented by ArtsEmerson at Robert J. Orchard Stage, Paramount Center, Boston. Through Oct. 9. Tickets $20-$80, 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org