I remember when I saw Irwin do the original stage version of this show, my first thought was that he looked a great deal taller than I ever remembered. Silly I know, but taller and far more upright. Maybe that’s the true man without the weight of a clown or a character on top of his shoulders, but with the weight of Beckett inside his head, he towers above. Bill Irwin (Broadway’s The Iceman Cometh), who I’ve seen on stage a number of times, has clowned around with David Shiner in Fool Moon and Old Hats, finding his way through one long and difficult booze-fueled fight as George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff, and frowning and soliloquizing as he so steadfast waited for Godot. Always excellent and thoroughly engaging, Irwin magnificently utilizes every ounce of his skill as a clown to drive his characters in deep, finding purity of heart and action in every movement, and strength in every line. He has that kind of face, delivery, and presence. And every time he magically pulls a performance out of his ever-present bowler hat, a master class in creation is gifted to us all.
Irwin took that directive to heart at the Irish Rep two years ago, with the same zeal he is embracing and delivering now, on screen for On Beckett / In Screen. As directed precisely for the camera by M. Florian Staab and Irwin, he enters singularly, simply the same as before but through a different door, as things are different now. There is no audience, just empty seats. But there is a camera, and a socially distanced crew, keeping him company on the main stage, while also, leaving him all on his own to simply be himself; an actor, an intellect, and a clown. Not artsy or precious, but determined to share a sliver of himself and the headstrong process as he tackles the “famously difficult writing” of Samuel Beckett. Conceived and performed with relish by Irwin with a casual intense energy and playfully serious edge, the production is a touching clever conversation about existentialism, full of archaic prose, that is deeply charming, engaging, confusing, disturbing, and most of all, fun. The portraits of abstract consciousness, baked with never-boring questions of cruelty and violence, circling around human life and inner debate, haunt Irwin, like a fly that just keeps buzzing around inside his head, rarely ever leaving him alone. The energy and excitement, coming out clear from that rubbery Irish voice, that fierce immediate voice, makes this piece more like an actor’s studio workshop than pure narrative theatre. And that, I guess, is how it should be, especially when unpacking Beckett’s writing. He shares and sorts the actor’s love/hate relationship with the Irishman’s complicated works, that, oddly enough, were mostly written in French, and then translated back to English. He connects to the artist and the vaudevillian voice, their stand alone strength, and their dark Endgame, while sharing his intimate fascination most sweetly and intensely with us all.
Captured dynamically by the director of photography, Brian Petchers, on a set designed simply and cleanly by Charlie Corcoran (Acorn’s Straight), with subtle but clear-minded lighting by Michael Gottlieb (Broadway’s Lysistrata Jones) and a solid sound and music design by Staab (Public’s Teenage Dick), Irwin uses a clown’s relationship to fuel and transform himself over and over again, digging deeper and deeper into obscure text and baggier pants. The costume consulting is credited to Martha Hally (Irish Rep’s The Seafarer), but it feels like Itwin pulled everything out from his big and never ending clown closet with joy for this playful determined 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 pants and shoes, but he always finds his way back to the central, toe-to-toe battle with despair and enlightenment.
This despair, he does not love, no, but he does hold great admiration for “the writers who take despair on.“ When he finally moves past some of the more intriguing monologues from the deliciously diabolical Texts For Nothing and The Unnamable, and into the main course, we excitedly take a deep impatient breath, as this is the one we’ve all been, quite naturally, waiting for. There’s a much desired step forward, with big shoes, over a baggy pant threshold into an arena of neutral mode delight. This is the playful dive we really showed up for: 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 with ease, so he can dive deep into the most celebrated one that he has the closest connections to. He lays out casually his reminiscent part in the starry and sold out revival at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center in 1988, directed by Mike Nichols, and co-starring 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 intricate take on the fantastical Lucky. Ironically, Lucky stays basically silent for the majority of the play, until he is finally asked or commanded to speak. He launches, as he does here in this wildly entertaining streaming performance, into a famous 500-word-long monologue which is as powerfully unstoppable as a train without brakes.
“It’s a bugger of a play“, he states, “huge” but the intense size never overpowers the delivery or the man in the hat. Each movement is determined and decided, not by chance or fate, but by a careful consideration of the text and the stage directions, which seem almost biblical to the clown. Irwin also reminds us that he deliciously participating in the 2009 Broadway revival co-starring Nathan Lane, John Goodman, and John Glover, which was nominated for three Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Play, and 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, nor will we. 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. Jump into On Beckett / In Screen, and find that delicious clown fuel in the despair of Beckett’s light Irish touch.