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Established 16/3/2000

"Tomb with a view" for Samuel Beckett performance!

By John Donohoe

THE 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.

Fourknocks interior
The interior of Fourknocks, where the Samuel Beckett drama was performed.

But, 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 of theatre.

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 not admitted!’

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 him.

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.

Beckett wasn’t 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.

It 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.

Published in the Meath Chronicle, September 16th, 2006

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