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Q&A with Gate Theatre Artistic Director Michael Colgan

The Gate Theatre Dublin is synonymous with the works of Samuel Beckett, having toured productions throughout the world from Beijing to New York, Sydney to Toronto and London to Melbourne. Gate Theatre performs Beckett’s Watt and Endgame at the Power Center October 27-29. Michael Colgan is the Artistic Director of Gate Theatre.

Photo: Rosaleen Linehan and Des Keogh in Endgame.

Leslie Stainton: Your current season includes a contemporary memoir, an adaptation of Little Women, and Noel Coward’s Hay Fever, among other works. How does Beckett fit into this picture—and into the overall vision you’re trying to achieve with the Gate?

Michael Colgan: It’s not really about how Beckett fits into a picture or indeed any other writer for that matter. It is rather about an audience fitting into a work and the best way of accessing a multitude of audiences within a given season. To suggest there is a picture, would suggest there is one specific idea we want to fulfill. In contrast I would suggest that what the Gate aims to achieve and has achieved, is a smorgasbord of writing which is united by a dedication to quality, to theatre and a pledge to investigating a range of human experience. Indeed I mean quality in every capacity but particularly in terms of performance. It is no coincidence that the Gate has been lucky to acquire some of the best performers and creatives in the world and this is in a bid to deliver a work to its greatest standard. Yes, I have a particular love for the work of Samuel Beckett but as he himself has put it ‘Habit is a great deadener’ and so if there has to be an overall vision, it is one of a faithfulness and commitment to producing the highest standard of production in terms of any piece of writing and on this, as Beckett would say, ‘I have my faults but changing my tune is not one of them.’

LS: In this time of recession, war, climate change, and political and religious extremism, what insights and consolations, if any, does Beckett offer?

MC: A lot of the time, there is the ignorant association with the work of Beckett that his ultimate sentiment is bleak. This could not be further from the truth. Yes there is the general air of what Tennessee Williams might call ‘the charm of the defeated’ and a sense of surrender within his oeuvre with lines like ‘the sun shone, having no alternatively, on the nothing new’; but as he himself purported ‘nothing is funnier than unhappiness.’ Beckett finds such humour in the mundane and this is achieved with an acute sense of contradiction within single sentences and the skill of undercutting expectation of change with a line like ‘you cried for night- it falls. Now cry in darkness.’

What he shares with Joyce are subjects who are unable or unwilling to escape the situation of their lives but instead of dwelling on that inability he celebrates fallibility and imperfection acknowledging that ‘you’re on the earth (and) there’s no cure for that ‘. It is by acknowledging failure that he can suggest ‘try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ There is a sense that there is possibility but that there is a responsibility involved in its achievement. As Estragon and Vladimir say in Godot, ‘ We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?.. ‘ Yes yes, we’re magicians.’

LS: Technology is increasingly defining our world and controlling our daily existence. Where does live theater fit into this? Does it help to restore something we’ve lost, or are in danger of losing?

MC: In many ways, theatre is the art of loss. You know that you are going to experience a set of images and situations for a particular duration. It is an ephemeral art form and performance is notoriously difficult to document fully. Technology has helped in this regard and indeed has become manifest within performance. However, it is the ethereal nature of theatre – the very essence of its ‘liveness’ and the knowledge that no two performances are the same which differentiates it from any other art form and it is what I feel should determine and be the focus of its future.

This is coupled of course, with the fact that it is a symbol of a sort of consensus – it is a rare commitment these days that a large group of people converge together in the same physical time and space for whatever period. If we are in danger of losing this, I think live theatre will not necessarily help to restore physical communication but instead do as it has always done by acting as a meeting point in which people can experience. So if theatre is the art of loss then as Elizabeth Bishop suggests: ‘loose something every day… then practice loosing father, loosing faster.’

LS: Many audiences think of Beckett as a minimalist—sparse language, lots of silence. But in fact, as the title of your recent series, “The Relish of Language,” suggests, words are paramount in his work. What’s distinctive about Beckett’s use of language?

MC: Beckett was the definitive wordsmith. As he says, ‘All I know is what the words know.’ There are many elements that make his use of language distinctive. For example he was acutely aware of the sounds and playfulness of words and invested heavily in their music. This is evident throughout his work for example in the passage in Watt which goes ‘And the poor old lousy earth, my earth and my father’s and my mother’s and my father’s father’s and my mother’s mother’s and my father’s mother’s and my mother’s father’s and my father’s mother’s father’s’ and so on.. This is a real gift to a performer.

Equally in Not I, the speed at which words should be spoken are determined by an entire passage of broken structures. Often it is what Mouth does not say that is important and indeed Beckett was very faithful to silence. In Not I we hear the edits of speech, we are brought into the conception of language and we are made very much aware of its construct but at the same time through the speed of its delivery the meaning becomes less important and we are left with the musicality of the speech. Beckett too, often comments on the act of writing during the process of writing itself and this is evident in Endgame when Clov asks Hamm ‘What’s keeping us here?’ To which he replies ‘The dialogue.’ It is back to the notion of acknowledgement, of fallibility. We are always aware that what we are hearing has been written even to the extent that writing is criticized as in Watt ‘how hideous is the semi-colon?’

LS: You’ve been producing Beckett for more than 20 years. How has audience reception of his work changed during that time?

MC: In actual fact it has been 30 years – I am often mistaken for a much younger man! I think Beckett’s first audiences may have been focused on discovering a fixed meaning or identifying a particular line of understanding which was offset considering the climate of art and such works as those by Rothko or Jackson Pollack. I think that investigation, while not having disappeared completely, has definitely relaxed somewhat and audiences now experience the work on a sheer level of enjoyment.

LS: You’ve been described as a “ready apostle” for Beckett, with a missionary’s zeal for promoting his work. Is this still your primary aim in presenting him?

MC: I would not identify with the martyr connotation of the question. I have simply promoted his work for so long because the work itself is that good. One does not recommend something for no reason. When you are drawn to a work or any experience in life it is the greatest joy to share that. I firmly believe that Beckett is the greatest writer of the 20th century and testimony to that, is that a play like Endgame written fifty-five years ago has all the rigor and courage of a new play. This makes my job very simple.

LS: Born Irish, Beckett spent his adult life in Paris and wrote his plays first in French. What does it mean for an Irish company to present his work?

MC: While I believe that one element of Beckett’s genius is that his work is, in effect timeless and placeless which gives it its universality, I do believe there is a lyricism in the language that is inherently Irish. While it is not a pre-requisite to staging his work, I think there are subtleties such as expressions and syntax that are fully illuminated with an Irish voice. Indeed Beckett was a fan of Barry McGovern’s voice which has become synonymous with his work. Krapp’s Last Tape is a specific example of this, with lines such as ‘went to Vespers once like when I was in short trousers’ and ‘Be again in the Dingle on Christmas eve.. be again on Croghan..’

Beckett asks a lot from actors, to put it mildly. He sticks them in garbage cans and buries them in sand up to their necks. He calls for huge feats of memorization. Ann Arbor audiences will see Barry McGovern, for example, perform Watt solo for more than an hour. How do actors do it? Don’t they wind up thinking him a sadist?

I think what Beckett asked of the actor was total embodiment. Indeed he was as much a director and choreographer as he was a writer. Yet, however much the actor was restricted in terms of physicality or delivery in terms of the speed of speech, there is in fact great freedom in restraint and Beckett’s allegiance to silence was a generous gift to any actor to transpose their own music and physicality within the spaces he deliberately laid vacant for them. As he put it, the task of the artist is to find a form that accommodates the mess.