He looks a great deal taller than I remember. Taller and more upright, but maybe that’s the real person without the weight of a clown or a character on top of him. Bill Irwin (Broadway’s The Iceman Cometh), who I’ve seen on stage a number of times, clowning around with David Shiner in Fool Moonand Old Hats, fighting his way through one long and difficult night as George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff, and frowning and soliloquizing as he waited for Godot. Always excellent and engaging, utilizing his skill as a clown to drive a character in deep. He has that kind of face and presence. And every time it’s a master class in creation.
Irwin has taken that directive to heart at the Irish Rep, walking out on the main stage as simply himself, an actor and a clown, for real, determined to share a bit about himself and the process that he indulges in by tackling the “famously difficult writing” of Samuel Beckett. Conceived and performed by Irwin with a casual energy and playful edge, the production is a conversation about existentialism full of archaic prose, charming, engaging, and fun. The portraits of consciousness haunts Irwin, like a virus that just won’t leave him alone, and that energy and excitement makes this piece more like an actor’s studio workshop than theatre. He shares and discusses the actor’s relationship with the Irishman’s complicated works, that, oddly enough, were mostly written in French, and than translated to English. He connects to the vaudevillian voice, it’s stand alone strength, and shares his fascination most sweetly with us.
On a set designed simply and cleanly by Charlie Corcoran (Acorn’s Straight), with subtle lighting choices by Michael Gottlieb (Broadway’s Lysistrata Jones) and clear sound design by M. Florian Staab (Public’s Teenage Dick), he uses clown fuel to transform himself over and over again, digging deeper and deeper into obscure text and baggier pants. The costumes are credited to Martha Hally (Irish Rep’s The Seafarer) although it feels like most were pulled out of Irwin’s (clown) closet joyfully for this playful game of struggled chaos in oversize suits. His love of clowning sometimes distracts and dislodges us from the focal point, floating around possibly to freely in his big clown shoes, but he always finds his way back.
He “does not love despair, but the writers who take despair on“, says Irwin, who’s joined, for a quick and lovely moment on stage by the young Finn O’Sullivan (St. David’s Oedipus) when he finally moves past some of the more intriguing monologues from the delicious Texts For Nothing and The Unnamable, and into the main course, the one we’ve all been, quite naturally, waiting for. It’s the one we really showed up to hear about, En attendant Godot (written 1948-1949; Waiting for Godot), and although there were a few others: Fin de partie (1955-1957; Endgame), Krapp’s Last Tape (1958), and Happy Days (1961), Irwin tosses them aside for the most celebrated and the one he has the closest connections was part of the starry and sold out revival at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center in 1988, directed by Mike Nichols, and costarring Robin Williams, Steve Martin, and F. Murray Abraham, and Lukas Haas. In this big named production, Irwin jumped beyond the silent clowning routine he was best known for, impressing the theatrical world with his take on Lucky. Ironically, Lucky stays basically silent for the majority of the play, until he is finally asked or commanded to speak. He launches into a famous 500-word-long monologue which is as powerfully unstoppable as a train without brakes.
Irwin also joined the 2009 Broadway revival co-starring Nathan Lane, John Goodman, John Glover which was nominated for three Tony Awards: Best Revival of a Play, Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Play (John Glover). From that experience a new way of pronunciation for these American actors was organically derived, and he’s just never been able to go back. He shrinks larger than life when he engages in the text, and with cold hands and a warm heart, he deepens our knowledge and appreciation of Beckett, Irwin, and a clown that just can’t stop exploring.