I just saw Queen of Puddings Music Theatre’s production, in association with Canadian Stage, of Beckett: Feck It! You hear a title like that and you may well wonder what they were thinking, what they were trying to say.
I thought the title was an attempt to humanize a playwright who is if nothing else, challenging. Beckett’s not for everyone, sometimes difficult to decode. As a fan of Queen of Puddings (QoP) my tummy lurched a bit when I heard about this project; so perhaps the title is an attempt to assuage our fears. At first glance B:FI! appears to be a pragmatic hybrid, parts grafted together for no clear reason. And when you cook something in a pot and don’t know what to call your concoction, you may well say “feck it” either in jest or frustration.
Last year QoP gave us Svadba, a song cycle trying to leverage something operatic out of its lovely world. The brilliant pragmatic move was to commission an a capella song cycle. This not only eliminated a colossal expense (the orchestra & the complexities of rehearsal time), but probably shortened the development cycle for the work, which had already seen the light of day in other versions.
This time? QoP gave us four short Beckett plays sandwiched around a song-cycle in German by Andrew Hamilton plus two short trumpet interludes. I was reminded of the Canadian Opera Company‘s production of The Nightingale and Other Tales, an evening cobbled out of several short works by Igor Stravinsky, including instrumental solos (for clarinet in the case of the COC work) & songs. As with the COC evening, these four plays are rarely staged because they can’t fill an evening.
I loved the four Beckett plays, especially Play, which was a bit of a tour de force (did the cast do their own lighting cues? How else could they synchronize: which is to say beautifully). I wonder if I would have liked them so much without the additions made by QoP.
The songs take it to another level, as if they were the heart-beat or the subconscious underlying the words in the four plays; Hamilton’s logic matches that of Beckett. The emotions in these plays are often arbitrarily split between two personas as if the two were aspects of the same person, divided on the stage. The manic back-and-forth we get in the plays happens in these songs as well, only this time, crazily veering back and forth inside the same performance from one person, namely Shannon Mercer. Her singing was wonderfully tuneful and fastidiously on pitch throughout even as she veered between precision and wildness, containment and explosiveness. Whenever she appeared I felt the work probe deeper than it had during the plays.
As I listened I thought of older practices in music theatre, echoed by QoP. Number opera is nothing if not pragmatic, a segmented discourse allowing one to rehearse different parts separately, and, at least in the old days, to substitute when you didn’t like what was offered. And substitute they did, unfazed by the language barrier.
The relationship between the music and the plays is problematic, to be sure. This is a sandwich, but I wondered which is the bread and which is the meat? For pure intelligibility the plays were easier to digest, like an operatic recitative, whereas the songs were like arias, giving us a more reflective discourse. I am thankful that Toronto audiences have an appetite for ambiguities & challenges, voraciously devouring whatever is set before them.
QoP’s Beckett: Feck It! continues until February 25th at Berkeley St Theatre.