Saturday, September 11, 2010

Time-Based Art: Conor Lovett inhabits the Beckett -- or is it haunts?

Conor Lovett
By Barry Johnson

I had a restless sleep last night. I'm not blaming the very great Conor Lovett's embodiment of First Love, the early Samuel Beckett short story, part of Portland Institute for Contemporary Art's TBA festival. No, it was the coffee, I think, though Lovett and Beckett occupied some of my thoughts as I lay awake.

I am tempted to unpack "restless sleep," a euphemism that  smooths to pebbles the gravel of small pains and other indignities. I will blame Beckett for that temptation: One way to think of First Love is as a long confession. Another way: as a catalog of pain.

Or make that a celebration, if the narrator of First Love is serious and he nearly always is, though serious in a frequently funny way. (Beckett makes us laugh -- in embarrassment for his characters or ourselves, at the inherent discontent embedded in life itself, darkly.) "What I understand, which is not saying much, are my pains," Declan says. (In First Love the narrator is nameless, but we can't bear to call him "narrator" throughout and Declan popped into our head. There is some textual justification for this liberty with names, we hasten to add, though it overworks our "devil" or middle finger.)  He then spends some time talking about the varieties of pain before concluding: "To be nothing but pain, how that would simplify things."

Declan is all about simplicity, or maybe he's about the complexity of even the simplest "plot" if you are sitting on the geyser of the unconscious as it spews the detritus and desire that constitutes "motivation." And resolve to tell us what you see.

 SPOILER ALERT: The plot of First Love, simplified.  Declan's father dies. He's evicted from the room in which he's spent most of his life and becomes homeless. He meets Lulu (or "Anna") on a bench near a canal and falls in "love." Eventually, she takes him home, becomes pregnant and during the throes of the birth, he flees their apartment.

First Love Promo from International Festival of Arts & on Vimeo.

This takes Lovett 80 minutes to enact -- standing, shuffling, bending over to help us imagine a "bench" or looking up to help us see "patch of sky." He's a little nervous (it's a confession), and he's stiff, though his gestures become more and more subtle at one end of the scale and grand at the other. He's dressed in layers, as a homeless man would, one of which has a hood that's pulled back neatly framing his narrow, expressive face. Not that we get a full range of expressions. I like the little knowing smile best or maybe the raised brow that asks the audience if they understand what he's talking about. Yes, we think we do.

First Love (which was written by Beckett in French in 1946 and translated by Beckett into English in 1973) begins in a graveyard with our unstable narrator: "I have enough trouble as it is saying what I think I know..." He ponders the death of his father, or rather the dates, and "lunches lightly" -- "My banana tastes sweeter when I'm seated on a tomb." And he give us his philosophy: “The smell of corpses, distinctly perceptible under those of grass and humus mingled, I do not find unpleasant, a trifle on the sweet side perhaps, a trifle heady, but how infinitely preferable to what the living emit. They stink.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: I almost hate to quote this for you. I haven't read First Love and I'm quite content that my first exposure was to Lovett's version, which repeats tonight at 8:30 p.m.  More than content. His "reading" of this line, for example, with its tiny pauses and emphases, makes it seem a very great sentence. Running it through the relative monotone of my mental process doesn't do it justice, I know now. Still, writing and quoting is the business here.

So, yes, the father's grave, the eviction from his father's house (which Declan is angry about in his way) and the taking to the road or the streets or the canals. Lines leap out us ("Come let's eat, the fumigation can wait") and we duly record them, knowing we'll be able to catch up with the "plot." And then Lulu appears one day at a bench by a canal that Declan lies upon at evening time, just before nightfall, and asks to sit at one end. They meet like this over several days, silently except for her wordless singing, until he expresses his discomfort with the arrangement -- he can't stretch out anymore: "The mistake that one makes is to speak to people."

Lulu suggests that he straighten, his feet in her lap: "Under my miserable calves I felt her fat thighs," Declan remembers, and frankly, that human contact was enough, enough to spark a meditation on the desires of the flesh and the way we interpret them. "Women smell a rigid phallus 10 miles away and wonder, how did he spot me from there?" I would consider this misogynistic if it weren't embedded within Declan's greater misanthropy, though that word doesn't capture it either.

Love and cow pies or turds or patties or "pats": At one moment Declan finds himself wandering through a field. "I found myself inscribing 'Lulu' in an old heifer pat." He is not content with this and plunges his devil finger into the pat -- "which I then sucked."

Those two paragraphs should be enough to convince us that Beckett's humor is ribald if not downright dirty. In Lovett's mouth they are matter-of-fact, but he also conveys that Declan knows exactly what he's saying, and that he knows the audience is going to titter or emit a gasp of disgust, as the young women seated to one side of me did. This exchange of information is actually quite deep: He expects, we respond, he responds to our response, we move along.

Let's have a few more quotes, yes, more or less randomly? "I lived of course in doubt, on doubt."  "It's always the same sky and never the same sky and what the word for the that?" "The faces of the living, all flush and grimace, could they be considered objects?"  "She asked me what I was doing: She can't have expected an answer." "The more naked she was, the more cross-eyed."

That last one stopped Lovett for a moment. He repeated it (I don't have the text so I don't know for sure, but I think this was an ad-lib -- for that matter ALL these quotes are from my notes, punctuated in my own way, and shouldn't be considered precisely accurate) and bent over. A couple of times he stopped to subtly acknowledge something -- a loud and prolonged car tire screeching outside, a particularly audible reaction from the audience. But this particular formulation in the text came close to poking an inadvertent giggle from him, or so it seemed to me. And a giggling Declan would not be proper: Lovett suppressed the impulse into a little smile.

And by that time we were almost through. We knew the living arrangement with Lulu would end badly, and not because of Lulu's intolerance. We never meet her, but knowing Declan, we are sure she must be the most tolerant and forgiving human on the planet. Declan aspires to the dull stare, silence, to sit in his room and have his meals brought to him. Which doesn't exactly make him father material, though perhaps it describes many fathers, now that I think about it. We figure that he won't make it past the birth of the child, which Lulu (who is a prostitute) says is his. He doesn't.

I went into First Love thinking about another playwright of Irish extraction, Eugene O'Neill, and our recent Long Day's Journey Into Night. They are similarly bleak, I suppose, and the production of Long Day's Journey was quite spare in a Beckett sort of way. First Love by the way was played on a stage bare except for two benches set on their ends, which Lovett stayed near and actually interacted with at one point. But First Love doesn't accept the convention of fourth wall; it speaks directly to us, without distance. We don't analyze, we react to it, we slip into its stream, we engage.

I'm imagining now: What if William Hurt had played First Love (as for example Ralph Fiennes has done) instead of Tyrone. Would he have gotten the stick that he received from many audience members in Portland for what they viewed as his idiosyncratic take on Tyrone? I think not. But he played Tyrone in a way that would not have been out of place in First Love -- directly, as explanation and confession, though with more emotional range (anger and pity) than Beckett allows. First Love has one cry of pain and anger, which surprises us intensely; Long Day's Journey is full of them.

But still, I'm suggesting, that Hurt's performance would have fit Beckett, and the production as a whole did, too.  I called it Greek in one of my forays into the play and the production, not that I was alone in this observation, and I think that's right, but not so far from Beckett in the minimal theatrical language it employed. I don't want to push this too far: Beckett's specific concerns are different from O'Neill's and the Greeks, by and large, and his mode of expression is, too.

I sat next to a prominent Portland actress and I asked her what she thought of Hurt's performance, before First Love started, knowing pretty much what she'd say. She loved the performance of Robyn Nevin as Mary Tyrone and thought Hurt's performance was an ego trip of the worst sort. I didn't have time to lay out my case for the defense, but I said enough to wonder if she'd ever take anything I said about theater seriously again. She was that confirmed in her opinion.

We watched First Love, and from the first fidget and deadpan stare, Conor Lovett had us. Eighty minutes in a hard chair after a busy and challenging week spent mostly in hard chairs and he had me.  She'd just left a draining (though exhilarating) acting workshop (with Antony and Cleopatra as the text!) and he had her. This far, we were in complete agreement.

Lovett will be back for a Beckett Trilogy on Tuesday, performing selections from Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable. I'm thinking I have to be there.