‘Beckett doesn’t have to be boring and slow’
Tom Slater talks to d’Animate Theatre about finding the fun in Beckett’s Roughs.
‘We wanted to do the plays like no one has ever done before.’
Usually, this statement would have really got my back up. The works Adam El Hagar – who with partner Michael Rivers, acts and direct as d’Animate Theatre – is referring to are Samuel Beckett’s ‘Roughs for Theatre I & II’. Like many who admire the great Irish playwright and who have had to sit through too many god-awful ‘novel’ interpretations, I’m instantly suspicious of anyone tinkering around the edges of his masterpieces.
D’Animate, founded by Rivers in 2011, has been making a name for itself at the Edinburgh Fringe for reworking modern classics. Last year, their Bitesize Chekov (a tripartite introduction to the Russian master) sold-out at Spotlites and, fusing together Beckett’s two one-act sketches into an hour-long show, Roughs is playing to packed audiences at Zoo Southside this time around.
Quite in spite of myself, I absolutely loved it – as have a diverse audience from greying connoisseurs to uninitiated under-10s. I met up with Adam and Michael between shows at the Zoo Bar to talk about what sets them apart.
Barely two years out of East 15 Acting School, where they met and cut their teeth, d’Animate certainly dust-off these largely forgotten pieces with a definite freshness: ‘I approached Beckett with a certain degree of naiveté’, says Michael, sat in the fitting gloom of a cloudy Edinburgh afternoon. ‘I purposefully didn’t research the plays; I just studied text.’
Good thing, too, for if he had read around a bit, he may have gotten a little gun-shy. The Beckett estate has become somewhat notorious for issuing injunctions to theatre companies who go too far to adapt or rework his scripts. Given that their only major addition – a surreal segue between the pieces – is separate to the text itself, they’ll likely be spared their day in court. Nevertheless, their interpretations of the plays themselves bring a similarly physical flourish – far beyond the usual restrained rigidity Beckett insisted upon. In ‘I’, Rivers, playing the blind busker ‘A’, creeps around the floor like an inebriated spider, grasping for the touch of the one-legged ‘B’ (Hagar) who chances upon his spot, while both bring an effete fustiness to the bureaucrats of ‘II’: ‘We can follow the stage directions but that doesn’t mean we can’t stylise the way we move or have fun with the piece.’
‘Fun’ isn’t a word often associated with the quintessentially maudlin scribe, and yet it’s their sense of humanity and humour that truly elevates this production, and makes it, in some ways, more faithful than some of the more portentous adaptations. ‘You have the staple idea that he’s boring and slow’, adds Hagar, ‘but he gives you very blatant comedy’. Indeed, Roughs has had the young and old in raptures. ‘A seven-year-old came to see the show the other night, she was laughing her head off in all the right moments’, Rivers enthuses.
Delivering Beckett’s whip-smart dialogue, the pair are electric, but also attend to the glimmers of real pathos beneath the detached farce. Most of all in ‘II’, where ‘Bertrand’ and ‘Morvan’’s verbose tirades – as they callously debate the fate of their suicidal ‘client’ – are interrupted by fleeting moments of almost childlike intimacy between them, as Hagar notes: ‘There’s so much humanity and warmth in there – it’s too often overlooked.’
As for their future plans, the chaps are planning to tour with Roughs, before working on their first fully devised piece for next year’s Fringe. Meanwhile, both are developing wildly different projects outside of the duo: Adam, a musical theatre piece on the Beastie Boys; Michael, a play about roof thatchers during World War I.
Balancing B-Boy-esque irreverence with a mature appreciation of the great masters, d’Animate are a dynamic young company: one to watch, at the Festival, and beyond.
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