builders of the Neolithic passage tomb at Fourknocks,
just inside the Meath border near Naul in County Dublin, could hardly
have predicted that, 5,000 years later, a gathering inside the tomb
would be asked to turn off their mobile phones before watching a
performance of a Samuel Beckett drama.
interior of Fourknocks,
where the Samuel Beckett drama was performed.
as musician Colm Ó Foghlú pointed out, it was built
as a ritual space, or a performance space, and it was just a different
way to use the space.
He composed a piece of
music specially for the production of ‘Stones, Bones and Beckett’,
a production conceived by Lou Kennedy from Clonard, who was combining
her studies of archaeology and drama to direct the three-part piece
While many were enjoying
the weekend Electric Picnic in Stradbally, Co Laois, drama lovers
in Meath were experiencing a different weekend event, with ‘Stones,
Bones and Beckett’ performed on Friday, Saturday and Sunday
night at Fourknocks, a little-known passage tomb which is part of
the Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth complex.
There were much smaller
crowds, too, than Electric Picnic - the tomb could only hold around
25 people at a time. We were told the event is not for you if you
“are claustrophobic, fear darkness, or become concerned by
the odd insect.”
We were also advised
to wear layers of clothes, as we would be inside the tomb for an
hour. “And bring an old cushion or two for your comfort to
sit on during the performance.”
It was a curious group
of people who gathered at the assigned meeting point - Killian’s
Bar in Naul. Curious as to what they were letting themselves in
for, and wondering how much clothing to bring, and whether cushions
were really necessary.
They were - sitting on
cold pebbles in a passage tomb for an hour is not exactly comfortable.
And you had to be on time - this was definitely a case of ‘latecomers
Blink and you would have
missed the first production - Beckett’s most performed work,
the 35 second ‘Breath’. But Kennedy used the shaft of
light that enters the passage tomb to great effect for it.
Normally, a stage strewn
with debris becomes visible in a light that starts as faint, becomes
less faint then fades again. Simultaneously, the audience hears
a faint cry, then the sound of a human breath, followed by another
faint cry as the lights fade and the curtain falls.
It was written in 1969
at the invitation of Kenneth Tynan, who included it as part of his
London revue ‘Oh Calcutta!’
Tynan included ‘Breath’
in the revue but with one crucial amendment - naked bodies were
added to the rubbish as the play’s props. Beckett was appalled,
especially as the revue’s programme attributed the work to
Lou Kennedy had her own
take on the rubbish - she used remains of mannequins as the rubbish.
The only prop used by
actor Malcolm Adams in ‘A Piece of Monologue’ was an
oil lamp. It is a 35-minute monologue commissioned by actor David
Warrilow in 1979, and portrays an old man in a room, an artist,
dwelling on life and death.
exactly the most light-hearted of playwrights so a passage tomb
is a very appropriate place to perform his work. Dressed in a white
gown and slippers, Malcolm Adams gave a powerful performance in
the glow of the oil lamp. The faint light from an opening in the
ceiling of the tomb remained on him after he quenched the lamp.
Lou Kennedy explained
that, like most of Beckett’s work, it was all about waiting,
and even though the lamp could be quenched, the faint light which
came into the room through the window would never die.
If “birth was the
death of him,” death would be the birth of him. In other words,
he is like the light which “dies on to dawn and never dies.”
Malcolm Adams described
performing in the tomb as being like ‘theatre on location’.
No manipulation was needed.
It was safe, like being
in the womb, echoing Lou Kennedy’s reasons for bringing the
performances about birth and death to a Neolithic tomb which centred
on birth and death rituals.
The final production
was a performance of ‘Seskilgreen’, a poem written by
John Montague in 1975, about a prehistoric passage grave in Tyrone.
Una McNulty and Ruth Kennedy performed in this, and again the structure
of the tomb was used to maximum effect - the actresses remained
outside on the top of the tomb, reciting different lines of the
poem through the openings in the ceiling to the audience below,
to the accompaniment of Colm Ó Foghlú’s composition
on the bass recorder, a musical instrument that was used in Ireland
up to the Middle Ages.
is said that the carvings in the tomb were created by people in
a ‘trance-like state’. Beckett, in writing ‘A
Piece of Monologue’, also aimed to hold the audience in a
trance-like state and Lou Kennedy and Malcolm Adams certainly did
that with their production in the tomb at the weekend - cushions
or no cushions.
in the Meath
Chronicle, September 16th, 2006