His master's voice

Theatre - Two shots of pure misery give Beckett addicts an uplifting fix, writes Michael Portillo

Within a couple of years of Samuel Beckett's death in 1989, the Gate Theatre, Dublin, mounted a festival in which all 19 of his plays were performed over three weeks. London's Barbican performed the same body of work in 1999, and followed up in 2001 with a Beckett film festival. Now, celebrating the centenary of the playwright's birth, the Barbican is presenting the Channel 4 series of films of all the plays beside the only film that Beckett made (called Film, and starring Buster Keaton), as well as nine of the plays on stage. Not surprisingly, a happening of this sort attracts some pretty serious Beckett addicts.

I sampled two of the offerings at the Barbican's Pit theatre. Come and Go is, by my estimate, 120 words long, excluding the title. Three women of indeterminate age share a backless bench that sits within a narrow, lit strip. Each in turn leaves for a short while, and during her absence one of the women left behind on the bench whispers a shocking secret to the other about her. The process is repeated three times.

The play opens with the line: "When did we three last meet?" Unlike the witches in Macbeth, these women look to the past rather than the future. They have known each other since childhood. At some point they dreamed of love, but though Vi would like to speak of what has happened in their lives, she has to content herself with holding hands with the others "in the old way", a routine that links each woman to the other two, hands resting on laps. To the implied sadness of their existences is added Vi's disappointment that they cannot even reminisce about their disillusionment.

The women are dressed in long coats, with hats like pith helmets largely obscuring their faces. Beckett, with atypical jauntiness, permits them to wear colours, and the designer, Leonore McDonagh, offers us their identical outfits in muted shades of beige, pink and mauve. The women's actions are very deliberate, and each leaves the stage without giving a reason.

Under Anne Ryan's direction, the two left behind slowly turn their heads in perfect unison to ensure that they are out of earshot. The secret is imparted somewhat salaciously but is received with sympathetic shock. Beckett wanted the words to be said as softly as is compatible with being heard, and for the most part with-out emotion. The silences are long. When the curtain fell, the aficionados exhaled deeply, apparently satisfied that they had witnessed a perfect - and perfectly faithful - rendition of the master's work.

Such things are important. In the 1990s, the Beckett estate forced a Deborah Warner production of Footfalls in London to close after she transposed a few lines from one character to the other. No such heresy has tempted Alan Gilsenan in this staging of the piece. A bedraggled woman paces up and down along a strip of light, nine paces in each direction. Justine Mitchell makes May's tread extremely heavy: the feet move as though dragging a ball and chain. From the darkness comes the voice of May's bedridden mother, interpreted by Susan Fitzgerald. (The darkness is a fetish: the usherettes block the light from the fire exit signs to deepen the blackness in the auditorium.) May offers to make the sick woman more comfortable, but the mother has an even greater concern for the daughter. She laments May's mental torment and her unceasing effort to give shape to her life and memories: "Will you never have done . . . revolving it all . . . in your poor mind?"

After the first scene, the mother is not heard again. May recalls snippets of conversation with her. But the daughter speaks of herself in the third person "as though she had never been . . . as though never there". She casts further doubt on her existence when she begins to refer to herself as "Amy", an anagram of her name. By the fourth and last scene, she really is not there. The lit strip is empty.

Fitzgerald is an upmarket, English sort of mother. Her production of vowels is pain-fully slow, which focuses our attention as much on their rhythm and cadence as their meaning. Mitchell takes up the music, vocalising the oft-repeated words "up and down" as though they were song.

After plodding along the hellish tunnel that connects the Underground station to the Barbican Centre - that Orwellian nightmare on Silk Street - I always reach the venue depressed enough to tear my own head off. It is the perfect preparation for Beckett. In Footfalls, we meet a woman who exists, in that she can speak and she can pace, but who is alive in no other sense. When the strip where she had paced lit up once more and illuminated merely her absence, the ranks of the Beckett appreciation society let out another sigh of contentment. They had seen a second faultless portrayal of the ultimate depths of misery to which a human being can descend. It had been an unsurpassable evening.

The Beckett Centenary Festival continues at the Barbican until 6 May. Booking on 020 7638 8891

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