Radio was the ideal medium for Samuel Beckett, the novelist and playwright most interested in paring down his work until he was left with the minimum number of words possible on the page. By getting rid of sets and only employing the voices of his actors, he would further purify his art, allowing us to follow his haunting voices without cluttering our minds with specific images. Pan Pan Theater, a company out of Dublin which is currently performing Beckett’s Embers at the BAM Harvey Theater, should be applauded for their efforts to bring his lesser-known works to a wider audience, but I can’t help feeling that their method does the play a disservice. As it begins, a group of people (named in their script “director, designers, [and] sculptor,” but absent from Beckett’s), including one inexplicably wearing a Hawaiian shirt, remove a black sheet from an enormous replica of a human skull, which remains in the center of the stage and sits on a bed of pebbles for the entire performance. The lighting varies according to the dramatic mood, but for the most part we watch this static skull and listen to Beckett’s play unfold.
Against the sound of the sea, Henry (Andrew Bennett), an old storyteller, spends the opening third of Embers speaking to his father, who is dead and likely committed suicide. He blames the fallout of his marriage on his daughter, the “horrid little creature” Addie, and eventually begins a conversation with his estranged wife Ada (Áine Ní Mhuirí). They recall Addie’s music and riding lessons, the location where they first had sex (“the hole”), and Ada recommends that Henry try to do something about his habit of talking to himself. In the end, Ada disappears despite Henry’s plea, “Not yet!” and he returns to self-reflection, which ends, “Nothing, all day nothing. All day all night nothing. Not a sound.”
Despite the contemporary opinion that Embers was a failure—Beckett himself called it “rather ragged”—it is actually a surprisingly wrenching drama, with agonizing, beautiful lines that are useless to quote out of context (even if the context is minimal) and classic Beckettisms like, “It was not enough to drag her into the world, now she must play the piano.” The murky narrative, in which events and relationships are never made entirely clear, adds up to a piece tempered by uncompromising bleakness and gallows humor. Still, the production by Pan Pan fails when it accessorizes the text with a cheap and rather obvious set. Furthermore, the BAM Harvey is hardly the right venue to wallow in Beckett, and on the night I attended Mr. Bennett’s weary bass was too often interrupted by the sounds of emails being received on iPhones and violence committed against the plastic wrappers on hard candy. Embers really could be the title of any of Beckett’s plays, as the image—of the last remaining light before the destruction is complete—is his aesthetic condensed into a single word. But this is material best read or listened to late at night when one is alone, not in a theater full of other people and niggling distractions.