A Perfect Season

Special Features   A Perfect Season Gate Theatre Dublin's artistic director recounts his journey through the work of Samuel Beckett.
Samuel Beckett
Samuel Beckett

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When it comes to Beckett I've been more of a missionary than a producer. I'm not sure when it all began, but it must have been as a student at Trinity College — Beckett's alma mater. I remember being in the 1937 reading room and laughing out loud at the opening line of his novel, "Murphy": "The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new."

That was 1970 and I had made a great discovery. A later discovery revealed that Beckett had won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969, but I consoled myself with the maxim that such laureates were more known than read.

In that same year, I came across a skinny youth called Barry McGovern, who was playing Clov in Endgame at a university's drama festival. He was wonderful and we became great friends. At a time when we should have been out drinking and telling lies to girls, we went to see Jackie McGowran's one-man show, Beginning to End, based on Beckett's writing. We began the standing ovation.

In 1983, I became director of the Gate and was hardly inside the door when I wrote to McGovern and asked him to do Beginning to End. He said yes and I eventually found the courage to write to Mr. Beckett. A card arrived, dated Bloomsday, 1984, which read: "Dear Mr. Colgan, Thank you for your letter. No objection, will authorize…" etc. etc.; and then to end, the telling line: "there remains the possibility of a one-man show on the same lines, but with a different title and a different choice of texts. With all good wishes, yours sincerely, Samuel Beckett." And the following year we presented I'll Go On, based on the trilogy Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable and Barry has since given over 200 performances in 25 cities in at least ten countries. I've seen nearly half of those performances, and the more I see, the more they reveal.

April 1986 was Beckett's 80th birthday and the world wished to honor him on what he called "the awful occasion." Paris had planned a festival of the major plays and a four-day symposium with 30 invited delegates from all over the world. No one invited from Ireland. Some mistake, surely!

So Barry and I set off to find a theatre in Paris. Beckett had known of the success of I'll Go On, as by now we were in regular correspondence. He suggested we meet up the following day at the Hotel PLM at Boulevard St. Jacques. Naturally, we were early, by at least an hour. Barry paced up and down. Waiting for Beckett.

And then, as if by magic and exactly on time, he appeared. Neither of us had seen him arrive. Taller than I had imagined, gaunt, like a Giacometti and with the bluest eyes I had ever seen. We sat in the hotel café. We each had an espresso, he gave us a thin cheroot, and we smoked and talked — about the show, the theatre we had found, even down to the details of the material in Barry's costume.

Three weeks later we opened I'll Go On at the Masion des Cultures du Monde and just before curtain-up I received a telegram: "De coeur avec vous tous ce soir. Sam Beckett." The following day we met again and from then on we met whenever I was in Paris — or passing through, as I'd like to say in the warning letter. The truth is, I was seldom passing through, but went just to meet with him.

In 1991, with his help and encouragement and with Barry at my side, the Gate produced the first Beckett Festival in which all 19 plays were presented on stage. We repeated it here at Lincoln Center Festival in 1996, and then again at the Barbican, in London in 1999. The festivals were a big hit and invitations poured in from many cities, but I felt three outings were more than enough. And as if to put an end to it, I received permission to film all 19 plays for the "Beckett on Film" project. I then felt I had done my bit.

But 2006 was the centenary and I couldn't resist giving it, to quote Sam, "one more turn of the screw." We would celebrate it in Dublin and London and this time, there would be talks, exhibitions, films, television and the Gate would produce ten plays. I asked Atom Egoyan, the great film director, if he would direct Footfalls and, quick as a flash, he came back and said, "Take a look at Eh Joe. If you can get permission, I know how to put it on stage."

We both worshipped at the shrine of the great English actress Penelope Wilton. Penelope had played a major part in the Gate's Pinter festivals and when she agreed to play the Woman's Voice, Atom and I knew we could be on to something. He came to Dublin and conducted a series of technical experiments, finally settling on seeing Joe's live performance simultaneously on- and off-screen.

We knew that the actor to play Joe needed to be as comfortable on screen as on stage. As Atom said, "playing the part of Joe is playing the longest reaction shot in movie history." Michael Gambon played it in Dublin and in London, and how exciting that Liam Neeson has agreed to play it here in New York!

Then, in 2006, the Gate came to Broadway with Brian Friel's Faith Healer, starring Ralph Fiennes. Ralph is the most meticulous of actors and, while playing the role of Frank Hardy, was immersing himself in all aspects of Irish literature. I, of course, was feeding him various Beckett tracts and throughout the run in New York he would phone me and cite long passages on my answering machine, notably from First Love.

It was only later, on recalling the background traffic noise during the messages, that I realized that these passages were being quoted from memory. I asked if he would do it on stage. "Only if you direct," was his reply. He had made me an offer I couldn't refuse.

And there it was, staring straight at me, a perfect Beckett season — three pieces based on works not written for the stage and each featuring a solitary male actor.

We opened in Sydney in January 2006, and, to misquote from Godot, "here we go again, again."

Gate|Beckett runs at Lincoln Center Festival July 16-27.

(Michael Colgan is a film and television producer and has been artistic director of the Gate Theatre, Dublin for 25 years, where he has produced many award-winning plays including acclaimed Beckett and Pinter Festivals which have toured worldwide. This piece appears in the Playbill for the Lincoln Center run of the Beckett work, July 16-27.)

Barry McGovern in <i>I</i>
Barry McGovern in I Photo by Prudence Upton