First Love, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, review
There is an extraordinary luxuriousness in Beckett’s combination of the poetic and the profane, says Mark Brown.
Samuel Beckett’s novella First Love was completed in 1946, initially “jettisoned” (Beckett’s own word) by the writer, and then resurrected and amended by him in the 1970s. As this fine performance by Peter Egan attests, theatre lovers are chief among the beneficiaries of the author’s resuscitation of a characteristically lyrical prose fiction.
In the work we find a man, typical in the great Irish writer’s oeuvre, who is as rich in language as he is poor in circumstances. Our narrator, we learn, was rendered homeless by the death of his father. The “premier amour” to which the book’s original French title alludes is his subsequent relationship with a prostitute named Lulu (or, due to the man’s arbitrary whim, later “Anna”), whom he met on the bench that doubled as his bed.
Whatever form he chose to write in, Beckett was, first and foremost, a poet: every line he ever wrote demands to be spoken aloud. So it is here, as the man, mud-spattered and world-weary, recounts his carnal and emotional engagements with Lulu with a grim, sardonic wit which is suspended agonisingly between casual misanthropy and battered humanism.
Here, writ large, is what Milan Kundera called “the unbearable lightness of being”. Our man is out of time and place. He promises, now and then, to speak on “less melancholy matters”, only to turn his clearly capable mind to detailed contemplations of bodily functions and his preference for the odours of the dead over those of the living.
There is, in the protagonist’s unflinching, bleakly absurd ramblings a series of typically Beckettian paradoxes. The man is, as even Egan’s physical stance conveys, comprised of both an insufferable sense of failure and a tenacious personal dignity. Although he appears defiantly solitary, his emotional and sexual instincts brutalised by disappointment, his relationship with Lulu reflects human needs as well as animal requirements.
There is an extraordinary luxuriousness in Beckett’s combination of the poetic and the profane, which finds its equal in Toby Frow’s production for The Gate Theatre, Dublin. The set, designed by Eileen Diss and lit by James McConnell, is subtly wonderful. As our man speaks on his bitter past, a window or a door will appear, hazily, through the dark backdrop, illuminated as faintly on the stage as they are in the mind of the cerebral vagabond.
This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on September 4, 2013:
© Mark Brown