Play it again Sam

Samuel Beckett's bleak, absurd and mischievous vision revolutionised theatre, inspiring countless ot

I was the worst kind of Beckett anorak. I began reading his plays and novels when I arrived at university. I was at my most porous and, for the next four or five years, my thinking, my aspirations, even my handwriting was somehow defined by Beckett. I became obsessed with his writing - its mixture of austerity and romance. He's like Bach for me. And if there are two artists who have provided a lifelong compass, it would be Beckett and Bach. Both are noted for their severity of line, their dry surface, but underneath there's a volcano, there's lava.

My unfinished doctoral thesis was on Beckett. Play was the first play I ever directed in the theatre, in a double bill with Happy Days. For several years, I read Beckett almost on a daily basis.

Ironically, when it came to make the film of Play, the way I worked with the actors was antithetical to everything I believe in when directing my own writing. The most pleasure from making drama comes from colla-boration, from empowering the actors. But with Play, I found myself invading their process and trying to anni-hilate psychology, annihilate the organic creation of the moment. Play is not about psychology - it's a score in some way. And we're all hostage to it.

If you are making a film of Play, you have to find a cinematic correlative to the interrogative light, which the stage directions specify as prompting every speech; otherwise the only alternative is to lock off the camera and record a live performance. You can't have a light moving and a camera moving - one has to be still.

When I was teaching dramatic literature, I would sometimes say to students: look at the last page of Beckett's Play and the stage direction "Repeat play". There's no way you can experience that on the page; nobody's going to return to the first page and read again. In a novel the reader can fully experience the author's intention of reading, but with a play or with a screenplay, a core element of the dramatist's art comes from the manipulation of time and space. Time is experienced in a very specific and pungent way when you're sitting in front of a play which repeats itself. And obviously the Dantesque idea of Beckett's is that in purgatory we'll be forced to revisit the same trivial episodes of our lives again and again, in some kind of ironic rehearsing of life.

The interesting thing here is that the process of making a film mirrors Beckett's conceit for Play. Film employs repetition; actors repeat their lines and actions until they are correctly captured on film. Often the camera angle will change and the same sequence will be photographed from this new position, again requiring the actors to perform their lines and movements correctly before the next position. Essentially this is what the characters in Play are doing: they're saying things again and again, hoping they might be allowed to move on and, like actors, fearing that this might never happen.

My technique for shooting Play was not simply repeating the first iteration of the text, looping the same piece of edited film. The repeat comprises a different version of the same words, but with some recognisable and formal choreographies to allow the viewer to engage with the repetition, perceive it, experience it. The text remains exactly as it's written, but I was looking to get a layered quality to the film, not just pressing the rewind button. I was trying to find a film correlative to actors repeating the piece twice. In the theatre, a blackout can be used as a powerful form of punctuation, and this is what Beckett asks for, but you can't do that in film. Black in film means nothing. Instead, I tried to use run-outs, lead-ins, fogging, clapperboards and other methods for the filmic equivalent of punctuation. They are the same kind of distancing devices.

It's bleak, but what I think is healing in Beckett is laughter. There's a constant movement towards farce in his plays - the frozen grin of farce. It's farce from repetition - first time round you laugh, and next time round it's harder to laugh. I assume if it kept repeating, the experience would get more and more terrifying. When the actors have been trapped in urns for two or three days, you start to sense their growing claustrophobia. It becomes very clear that the governing idea of this writing is terrifying and remorseless. I think the healing gradually dis-appeared from his writing.

Everybody who loves Beckett will say the same thing: no matter how miserable or dark or cruel it appears, his work is also profoundly uplifting. It's honest, naked, leavened with mischief. And full of pity.

This piece appears in Beckett Remembering, Remembering Beckett: uncollected interviews with Samuel Beckett and memories of those who knew him edited by James and Elizabeth Knowlson, which is published by Bloomsbury on 20 March (£20)


Richard Eyre, director

For millions of people in Europe after the Second World War, life was literally absurd: they were without hope, religion, food, jobs, homes, or even countries. Beckett gave them a voice. He culled a dramatic language out of everyday things, a language in which silence was as much part of the syntax as poetic repetition, and in which despair went hand in hand with stoicism. He emancipated the theatre from 19th-century naturalism. He showed that you don't have to write about society; you don't have to represent life as it is; you don't have to set plays in rooms; you don't have to be socially useful; you don't have to follow existing rules of drama. In short, if you have wit, a genius for language and a painter's eye, you can write anything about anything and make it mesmerically compelling. Along with Chekhov, Ibsen and Brecht, Beckett transformed the theatre of the 20th century.

Craig Raine, poet

Beckett is a very uneven writer, blighted from the beginning by the prior prodigality of Joyce. Beckett chooses to portray his personal dilemma - how to match Ulysses using his own drastically limited literary gifts - as merely another instance of a general condition of entropy. His writing comes out of an aesthetic of exhaustion. This is his existential alibi for his meagre native abilities. Interestingly, though, his contempt for literature, for theatre, his determination to write aesthetically punitive, self-mocking works of art, eventually produces some of the greatest theatrical effects, the most striking stage imagery. Not the jejune anti-theatre of Godot, nor the torpid yet risibly melodramatic pessimism of Endgame ("she died of darkness, Mother Pegg"!) - rather that restless, disembodied mouth in space, throbbing on the retina, in Not I. Or the three Dantesque heads in Play, up to their necks in urns as they eternally rehearse their erotic triangle - looking like Ser Brunetto in Canto XV of the Inferno, with "cotto aspetto" (a cooked face), their features "so lost to age and aspect as to seem almost part of urns" (terra cotta, in other words).

Charles Sturridge, director

Beckett is like a conjurer who walks on to the stage, gazes at the audience and slowly rolls up his sleeves to prove there is nothing hidden. Then, unblinkingly, he unscrews his hands, removes his feet and takes out his eyes and places them carefully at the side of the stage. Finally, when there seems no possibility of deception, the magic starts.

John Hurt, actor

I came to Beckett late - before doing Krapp's Last Tape in my late fifties I had done only readings of a few small things. But like most actors, I'd been very aware of him. What's most important about him, I think, is that he has influenced every single dramatist of the past 50 years. There's no one I can think of who has had a bigger influence. He is the greatest instigator of theatre as we know it. The defining feature of his work is its universality. He managed to make his plays to do with the human race rather than any one area or society; it wouldn't matter where a play like Waiting for Godot or Endgame was staged. Acting in Krapp's Last Tape was an extraordinary experience; I'd never done a one-man play before. The piece has an intrinsic magic. Its form is completely unlike anything else.

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