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Toronto International Film Festival Mad shadows
The Samuel Beckett Project brings the master's dark works to the big screen

Friday September 15, 2000

You don't just watch the series of films, based on the works of Samuel Beckett, that are part of the Toronto International Film Festival; you feel a physical shudder of recognition: sickbed vigils, the senescence of parents, the late-night chattering voice in the head that denies sleep. Sometimes bitter, sometimes blackly comic, Beckett's language is painfully true to the time-ticking awareness of existence stripped down to its basics.

Yet, somehow, that recognition is exhilarating. Such words as "gibbering" and "incommoded" take hold; such phrases as "the sour cud, the iron stool," or "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness" cut through the sour bandages of habit, and let fresh air on the wound again.

The inspiration behind the Beckett Film Project - which is bringing 19 of the master's plays to the screen, 10 of which are showing in Toronto - comes from Michael Colgan of the Gate Theatre in Dublin, who believes Beckett has been unjustifiably neglected in the last couple of decades. His mission is to bring the plays, including some of the lesser-known works, to a wider audience. He has done so by commissioning a group of prominent directors, most of whom have stage and screen experience, to shoot one play each, abiding strictly by Beckett's dialogue and stage directions.

The Toronto festival has about half of the films, all of which are to be completed by the end of the year. They are packaged in four screenings: the short monologue, Not I (directed by Neil Jordan) is screening with Krapp's Last Tape (Atom Egoyan). Each of Endgame (Conor McPherson) and Happy Days (Patricia Rozema) stand alone. And a half-dozen shorter plays are grouped together in one screening, including What Where (Damien O'Donnell), Act Without Words I (Karel Reisz), Play (Anthony Minghella), Catastrophe (David Mamet), Rockaby (Sir Richard Eyre) and Rough For Theatre I (Kieron J. Walsh).

I haven't yet seen Rozema's Happy Days, in which the character Winnie (played by Irish actress Rosaleen Linehan) slowly sinks into the ground. But the Canadian director (I Heard The Mermaids Singing, Mansfield Park) says her job was simply to "get out of the way" and let Beckett do his work. Her one major innovation was her choice of location: All the other films are shot in studio; hers was shot on the edge of a volcano in the Canary Islands.

Most of the other directors seem to have followed the same advice: to get out of the way and let the actors bring the text alive. The flashiest work comes from Minghella (the Oscar-winning director of The English Patient), with the 10-minute work, Play. A man (Alan Rickman) and two women (Kristin Scott Thomas and Juliet Stevenson) are stuck in urns against a mound of rubble and the usual lone barren tree that reoccurs in Beckett's work. Each character is speaking rapidly, spitting out the details of an adulterous affair, reciting and re-ordering the moments of betrayal, guilt and bitterness. Minghella's camera zooms to one character, then the next, buzzing like an angry hornet from one to the next.

At the other end of the spectrum is Egoyan's unobtrusive, utterly patient Krapp's Last Tape, starring a brilliant John Hurt as the man who, on his 69th birthday, reviews tapes he has made in earlier years, and agonizes over his life three decades before, when he "still had a chance for happiness." Egoyan has referred to this play, long before the project, as an important one to him, with its theme of trying to hold onto the past through technology, and exacerbating our sense of loss rather than relieving it. His direction is patient and subtle, with the camera beginning from slightly above and to the left of the character, who is seated at a cluttered desk, and gradually moving closer and more central, shifting from a kind of looking at, to an intimate seeing.

Not I reflects the last, agitated thoughts of an elderly woman who has spent her life unloved, has now fallen, and is perhaps dying - though the voice in her head keeps churning madly. The play requires only the mouth to be lit and the head fixed, but Jordan maintains a busy sense of excitable motion by cutting from angle to angle. Julianne Moore's rather too-pretty mouth sometimes undermines the pathos of the monologue that rides on the edge of terrifying.

Not I's natural companion is the short play, Rockaby (starring Penelope Wilton). As she sits rocking in her chair, an old woman's voice spins a story of mental illness and eventual death. The fearful to-and-fro of her mind has an almost Gertrude Steinian lyrical repetitiveness to it, punctuated by some of the most shocking anger: "Fuck life," says the woman's voice at one point. Yet each time the tape starts to wind down, she says plaintively, "More."

The production of Endgame is the most sly and blackly comic effort, full of ribald jokes and the kind of irritating excess that became a Monty Python specialty. Stuck in an attic that may well represent the human skull, two men - the overbearing Hamm and the servant Clov - bicker and squabble as the world ends around them, while Hamm's parents sit in trash cans behind them.

As with another black-and-white piece, Rough For Theatre I, the plays gain more flavour with Irish accents. Although they were written in French (some critics have claimed Beckett wrote French with an Irish rhythm), the Irish seems to restore a conversational, naturalistic tone to the material, and the style of humour seems at home. When Clov thinks he might have a crab louse, Hamm says worriedly: "But humanity might start from there all over again! Catch him, for the love of God!"

Screening Times: Not I and Krapp's Last Tape, today, 9 a.m., Uptown 2. Happy Days, today, 7 p.m., Elgin; Saturday, 12:15 p.m., Uptown 1. Endgame, Saturday, 6 p.m., Varsity 8. (The six shorts were screened earlier at the festival.)
The Samuel Beckett Centre at Trinity College Dublin
Beckett filmography

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