Colliding with Beckett, a theatrical production by second year students within the University of Malta’s Department of Theatre Studies, is a rendition of Samuel Beckett’s plays during the age of COVID, arising from a virtual place in a manner nonetheless real. Department head Mario Frendo and director Paul Sadot speak with Lara Zammit about the ‘lockdown’ production.

Inspired by five works of Samuel Beckett – Rockaby, Not I, What Where, Endgame and Play – the performance is a ‘lockdown’ collision with the five works of Beckett. What makes Beckett’s plays most suited for this theatrical exercise?

Mario Frendo: Beckett is one playwright whose works resonate with the situation we are living in at the moment in a very direct manner. Although created more than 40 years ago, his works, imbued as they are with uncertainty and disillusion, remain as valid as ever. I think the reason for this is that Beckett challenges whatever he deals with.

With absurd and bizarre situations, he challenges reality. With language he challenges literature. With words he challenges language. With his sense of lack of time, space, and place he challenges theatre, the art of presence.

Conditioned, as we are, to operate remotely and to continue doing theatre while we cannot actually share the same time, space, and place, we felt that in more ways than one, we face the same uncertainties and disillusions that Beckett addresses in his works.

To collide with Beckett, therefore, makes sense for us. Beckett meanders through the limits of the possible. We wanted to explore these limits and what remains possible in a situation which, quite literally, is keeping us ‘distant’ from each other. This is why we wanted to confront ourselves with Beckett, as he constantly pushes the boundaries of what we think is possible.

How did the students approach the task of interpreting these plays? What was the manner of their direction and instruction?

Frendo: From the outset, when we decided to work with Beckett’s texts, we were not thinking of interpreting any of them. We wanted Beckett to be an inspiration – a trigger – to the process of creating a performance.

In his works, Beckett suggests rather than states. He somehow invites you to generate your own narratives based on the outline he maps out with his words, and this is what the students did while working on Colliding with Beckett.

Actors who approach Beckett often adopt this attitude of meeting and colliding with his texts rather than interpreting them. That’s because with Beckett you often don’t know who you are and who you’re supposed to interpret – think, for instance, of Footfalls or Not I.

You don’t know exactly where you are and when the situation you play is supposed to be taking place – think of Waiting for Godot, where, famously, you don’t even know who – or, is it what? – you are waiting for. When a hint of what you may be is given, the logical grounding is seamlessly removed from beneath your feet and you’re suddenly there performing a mantra of sounds disguised as words.

Billie Whitelaw, the famous actress who worked closely with Beckett on several occasions, once asked Beckett while playing May in Footfalls “Am I dead?” to which he replied, after thinking briefly about it, “Well, let’s say that you’re not quite there”.

We face the same uncertainties and disillusions that Beckett addresses in his works

All this blatantly contradicts any notion of linear logic which characterises traditional plays and makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to ‘interpret’ Beckett’s works.

In our performance, the students collide with the texts they chose. They were given the freedom to seek how to relate, react, and collide with the plays in a process which was conducted entirely online without ever meeting in person. The students worked in their own houses and rooms while light designer Ismael Portelli and sound designer Mario Sammut together with Paul Sadot and me directed them with advice on how to develop the work. This gave them the possibility to explore new ways of how to perform ‘with’ Beckett’s ideas rather than to interpret them.

What challenges has this play brought to the fore and how does the piece benefit from the constraints of virtual interaction?

Paul Sadot: I am not sure whether I would consider virtual interaction as a constraint. Ubiquitous technology is facilitating the gathering of actors and audiences online from across the globe, producing ‘live’ collaborative and interactive events, be they rehearsals or performances.

It is a new and intimate kinaesthetic experience, made possible by unique encounters between socially and culturally diverse bodies in DIY digital spaces. I am devising with students in Malta, yet I live in the UK. I have also collaborated with actors in Brasil and the US.

This, for me, is amazing because these mobile and highly reflexive projects would be too complex and expensive to facilitate within the architecture of traditional (building centric) theatrical settings, particularly so during this past year, due to prohibitive travel restrictions and lockdown regulations.

I would say that DIY digital theatrical practices are implicitly choreo-political because they utilise ubiquitous technology and, in doing so, question perceived notions about proximity, perspective, agency, virtuosity, access, mobility and ‘(a)liveness’ in theatre.

In this way, the rehearsal and performance processes invite us to ‘move’ in different ways, ways that challenge theatrical paradigms and raise prescient questions regarding the positive role of these technologies in the structures of post-pandemic theatre.

Beckett’s plays challenge(d) theatrical paradigms, they are dramaturgically mischievous, often bleak, full of black comedy, the absurd, and the mundane, and all of this makes them a fantastic prospect for exploration within the digital theatrical space.

The DIY digital approach of our process/work is in itself inherently mischievous and very capable of proposing the absurd and the unimagined through edits and apps which throw up multiple scores and random encounters. Inviting these encounters as a positive and liberating way of working means that we are able to be ‘with’ the material as it emerges and that we become comfortable in ‘not knowing’.

This practice of being able to resist the premature moulding of the work recognises a creative path in maintaining flux and, in many ways, reflects the existential uncertainty that dwells within Beckett’s words, where we are free to create our own dramaturgy.

Can virtual theatre be truly called ‘theatre’?

Frendo: In my view, the issue here is that virtuality is steadily becoming a new reality. We are constantly engaging with virtuality in our every-day lives where we use virtual reality accessories and platforms with the same ease that we grab a glass of water when we’re thirsty.

So, I think that before we ask whether virtual theatre is truly theatre, we should ask whether the boundaries between reality and virtuality are clear at all in our contemporary lives. As a matter of fact, these boundaries keep dissolving faster than we think.

Theatre, as any other artform, develops according to the needs of those that do it and these, today, are individuals and communities who constantly engage with virtuality by necessity rather than choice.

Colliding with Beckett will be streamed online on YouTube and the Department of Theatre Studies Facebook page on Friday, April 30 at 8pm.  

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