“The whisper in your head … Me whispering at you in your head … Things you can’t catch … On and off … Till you join us … Eh, Joe?”
Eh Joe (1965) was Samuel Beckett‘s first play written specifically for television. With Joe (Michael Gambon) as the piece’s only physical presence, we first meet Joe moving around his bedroom checking every corner of his room before resting, satisfied of being completely alone.
A woman’s voice (Penelope Wilton) is then heard. Inescapable, whispered and threatening.
The first thing that struck me about Eh Joe was the hypnotic quality of the overall performance. Sitting in the dark and listening to Wilton’s incessant accusations, all the while watching the real Joe opposite the projected and looming-ever-closer face of the real Joe; when the show ended, I found myself momentarily wondering what on earth had happened for the past 30 minutes.
I probably could have followed the script with more dexterity as I did the following show, First Love, but having finished my Fringe run with a stomach bug caught during a night out celebrating said end of Fringe run, my mind was not necessarily as focussed to the cause as it could have been.
“But man is still today, at the age of twenty-five, at the mercy of an erection … Women smell a rigid phallus ten miles away and wonder, How on earth did he spot me from there?”
Originally written as a novella, First Love (1946) opens with a distant, noncommittal female humming and a man (Peter Egan) with his back turned to the audience. We see a bench and the front wall of a house.
Seen two days after Eh Joe, and feeling considerably worse thanks to whatever it was I caught, my mind is still in two on this particular performance. On the one hand I was taken by the overall atmosphere created, from the lighting mirroring the seasons to the time of day, to the imagery of the text and what pictures one man’s words can conjure up without props. A man now homeless after his father’s death shares a reluctant relationship with a prostitute, emotionally and physically, and explores love is not always the delight we are promised.
On the other, I am reminded how close I was to kicking the head of the man in front me. I do not care how hard the man’s day was; if you’re going to book a seat in the front row, then you stay. the hell. awake. Not this guy. I hadn’t felt that ill in a long time, and I was in a very zen state of comfort in my second row seat, but my eyes remained firmly open. In the words of the Reduced Shakespeare Company “We’re not your TV, we can hear you“. Guess what, actors can see you, too.
However, to Egan’s credit, his intonation and volume use noticeably changed, making damn sure that the audience member couldn’t sleep. Idiot.
Upon reflection of both pieces, I pondered for a while on what it must have been like when Beckett’s work was first performed. These days Beckett is now part of the canon and school curriculums, on par with Shakespeare in terms of being seen as essential study and a classic to perform. But in his early days, as with many playwrights, his back catalogue was not seen as so. Were these plays so revered in theatres during their first runs? Were actors desperately trying to get their hands and bodies into the scripts before others? How different must it have been to be an audience member then listening to a man lament about his lust-fuelled relationship, or hearing a woman accuse a man of his ‘loving’ abuse and torments?