Bill Irwin—who reminds us several times throughout On Beckett that he is in his “dotage”—is a member of a fading profession. In the ‘seventies, he trained at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, a defunct school named after a company that closed after over a century just last year. The vaudeville tradition he adores and embodies is dying, and any chance to see such physical precision, such effortless hilarity, should not be missed.
Irwin is now at the Irish Rep performing a one-man show about his love for Samuel Beckett, a playwright who, like Irwin, admired Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Groucho Marx. He recites seven excerpts, both prose and drama, and between each one he explains the choices he has made and how he arrived at them. For Beckett enthusiasts, this is pure catnip: in Waiting for Godot, for example, when Didi asks the boy to tell Godot “that you saw me,” is he betraying Gogo, sleeping beside him? Does that me exclude the possibility of us? It’s a question I’ve never considered, despite my dozen or so readings of the text. But an actor, who must memorize his lines, has a different relationship to language. “It haunts me,” Irwin confesses, “It won’t leave me alone.”
On Beckett, then, is one of this year’s greatest theatrical delights, a show that is simultaneously humble and ambitious, a master class with one of clowning’s great masters. “This is like practicing scales,” Irwin says, pulling up his oversized pants and effortlessly slouching into his schlemiel posture. I could listen to it all day.