How It Is (Part One)
The Print Room
Until May 19th
The Print Room at the Coronet is one of the best looking, most memorable performance spaces in the city. A former cinema that has been less gutted than scraped out; its once faded grandeur now fairly crackles with dramatic potential. The peeling wallpaper and distressed walls of the cavernous space are the kind of thing that bars in Shoreditch would pay eye-gouging amounts to even faintly approximate. Rather than using their Instagram-perfect location (you really owe it to yourself to check out their bar) to appeal to the lowest common denominator however, The Print Room has been notable in producing far more challenging work than the average Off West End theatre; with a laudable emphasis on foreign material. However even by The Print Room’s standards the current run of How It Is (Part One) by Samuel Beckett is particularly uncompromising. So it’s lucky that Gare St Lazare (an Irish husband and wife duo who specialise in adapting Beckett for the stage) have pulled off a coup by staging one of the most striking pieces that London has seen all year.
Gare St Lazare have built their reputation on reinterpreting Beckett’s prose work for the stage and How It Is? (Part One) is no exception. Heralded as one of Beckett’s most enigmatic works (a slightly terrifying phrase all things considered: hearing it, I felt akin to a medieval ship captain realising he’s steamed into a part of his map marked ‘here be dragons’) How It Is (Part One) doesn’t really go in for such bourgeois concepts as narrative. The novel is written in three parts and concerns the purgatorial tale (naturally it’s written entirely without punctuation) of a nameless man pulling himself through a hellish landscape of black mud, his only friend in the world a sack of tinned foods and a tin opener. The kind of obsessive interiority of the novel is reimagined on the stage as a kind of prose-poem; where Connor Lovett (the husband half of Gare St Lazare) and Stephen Dillane (most famous for Game Of Thrones and The Crown, but one of those actors who could probably turn in a searing performance in anything from Beckett to Eastenders if required) both stand in for the nameless man, delivering a torrent of circular reportage of their bizarre existence that is somewhere between stream of consciousness and free jazz. Particular words and phrases turning up again and again in the ‘narrative’, becoming handholds for the audience to grasp onto, funny call backs and tools with which to navigate through the hour and forty five minute runtime. There’s no interval, and really there couldn’t be.
Appropriately for such an alienated ‘narrative’ the audience are inverted, seated up on the stage whilst the innovative stage design sees Lovett and Dillane, staggering through the empty seats, flitting across the abandoned upper tiers. A ladder is produced, but remains resolutely unused (it’s that sort of play) whilst the lighting, designed by Simon Bennison, strobes and flares amid torrents of words and the unusual skronks and blatts of Mel Mercier’s suitably antic soundscape. Both Lovett and Dillane (who are occasionally joined by Mercier for a kind of chorus, speaking in tongues style, where each actor recites out of time with each other) pull off an incredible dramatic feat by being able to stay in this flow for so long and, particularly in the back stretch, Dillane deserves serious credit for bringing genuine humour to the proceedings. This is bold and challenging theatre that will repel many prospective audience members; but there’s nothing like it to be found in the present theatrical landscape. Here be dragons indeed, but sometimes dragons guard the purest gold.
Picture Credit: Copyright Tristram Kenton