Patricia Boyette as Winnie in Beckett’s Happy Days. Malta Theatre Festival.
Samuel Beckett spent time in Malta, creating Not I after seeing the Caravaggio painting in the Cathedral at Valletta. I’m over to see Happy Days and various Beckett late shorts, Not I, Rockaby, Act Without Words 1 and Ohio Imprompu, presented by The Llanarth Group at the Malta Theatre Festival, directed by Phillip Zarrilli, performed by Zarrilli (Wales), Patricia Boyette (USA), and Andy Crook (Ireland). There will also be a symposium on Performing Beckett taking place in Valletta on July 9th.
Zarrilli is not the only director participating in this year’s festival -Eugenio Barba and the celebrated Odin Teatret have been presenting performances and work demonstrations on dramaturgy.
With the Malta Arts Festival just around the corner, Rachel Agius speaks to Phillip Zarrilli who, in collaboration with the Llanarth Group, will be directing a number of works by Samuel Beckett.
Over four days next month, a group of actors will be bringing playwright Samuel Beckett’s work to our old cities.
Couvre Port in Vittoriosa and Mdina’s Palazzo de Piro will host several performances in an intriguing fusion of dramatic discipline, sited theatre and the artistic interpretation of the work of one of the 20th century’s pivotal dramatists.
While he has, without a doubt, left an indelible mark on the canvas of contemporary drama, Beckett is also renowned for having written plays which leave audiences ill-at-ease, confused or simply unsure of what they have just witnessed.
While some might find the experience discouraging, others like director Phillip Zarrilli find a wealth of meaning in the esoteric drama.
Addressing the idea that many find Beckett’s work rather inaccessible, Zarrilli explains why actors and audiences alike can sometimes be intimidated by the plays.
“Unlike other playwrights, Beckett’s work is not neatly packaged, ending once the curtain falls,” he said.
In an uncanny imitation of real life, the audience knows that something is happening but cannot quite understand what it is, why it is occurring and what is being done about it. Questions arise, loose ends remain untied and the impact of the plays lingers on long after the theatre has emptied.
This, says Zarrilli, is why Beckett’s plays present a formidable challenge for actors, an unfamiliar theatrical experience for the audience and a reputation for being impenetrable. “Performing these plays is a difficult acting task because, unlike realist works, there is no discernable narrative arc,” says Zarrilli.
He himself has had plenty of experience portraying challenging characters and teaching others to do the same. In 1976, he was awarded a Fulbright grant and left the US to go to India in order to study kathakali, a type of Indian dance-drama popular for its elaborate costuming and make-up and, more importantly, for its carefully considered movement and gestures.
Zarrilli has developed a technique that combines these psychophysical disciplines, creating what he considers a foundation in the pre-performative elements of acting.
During the Malta Arts Festival, Zarrilli will also be conducting a workshop designed to introduce the use of psychophysical techniques to beginners.
“Certainly, other acting skills are required but this technique helps the actor to completely embody the character and inhabit the moment,” he explains.
The disciplines are so well-suited to Beckett’s work because of the exceptional demands it makes of the actors involved. The minimalist style of the plays requires that the characters are played with a particular intensity and control because so few other elements are written into the drama.
In particular, the unique composition of ‘The Beckett Project II’ requires a certain degree of stamina from the actors in order to be effective. This is where psychophysical training comes into play.
With this in mind, in 2000 Zarrilli moved from the States to Wales where he set up a rehearsal space and studio in order to teach his technique. Here, he formed the Llanarth Group.
“The Llanarth Group is not so much a fixed acting troupe, as it is actors who have trained with me and who employ psychophysical techniques in their acting. Different people collaborate on different projects,” he explains.
Two of these actors, Andy Crook and Patricia Boyette, will be collaborating on the Malta edition of the project. Both have worked with Zarrilli before and the Beckett Project itself has travelled extensively since it began in 1995, including performances in Ireland, America and across Britain in a tour in 2001.
The original project comprises four short plays; Ohio Impromptu, Not I, Act Without Words I and Rockaby. They are performed simultaneously, allowing the audience to move between each ‘short’, as the plays are being referred to. Zarrilli is excited to bring this work to Palazzo de Piro.
“I’m looking forward to having these performances in sites other than a regular theatre,” Zarrilli said. “It brings another element to the experience. We also have the privilege of using rooms within the Palazzo that the public does not usually have access to.”
In addition to the plays that make up ‘The Beckett Project II’, the group’s performance of Happy Days, in ‘The Beckett Project I’, will premiere at the festival on two consecutive evenings. Happy Days, to be performed in Vittoriosa, has a more recognisable structure but the dramatic circumstance is anything but ordinary – one the play’s two characters, Winnie, is buried up to her neck and spends the performance gradually becoming engulfed by the detritus around her. The audience is given no reason why she finds herself in such a predicament.
“It is the existential situation we face often,” Zarrilli said, “things happen to people without reason and without warning.”
And perhaps this stark concordance with everyday life is why Beckett’s work can sometimes be a challenge to understand. An audience expects fiction, realistic fiction perhaps but fiction nonetheless, when they sit down in a theatre.
What Beckett offers instead is an image of the world that, although distorted and moulded to set a scene, animate characters and transmit a story, is still recognisable and still a source of unanswered and sometimes unanswerable questions.
‘The Beckett Project I’ will be performed on July 5 and 6 at Couvre Port, Vittoriosa. ‘The Beckett Project 11’ will be performed on July 7 and 8 at Palazzo de Piro, Mdina. For information and to book tickets, visit www.maltaartsfestival.org.