Written by Samuel Beckett
Dir. Judy Hegarty Lovett
Perf. Conor Lovett
Arcola Theatre, 20–22nd November 2014
I spend a lot of time in graveyards. Yes, morbid curiosity motivates me in part, stemming from an on-going fascination with death. But, living in London, one seeks out places of peace and solitude, and nowhere is quieter than the great gardens of sleep that stud the city’s landscape, permanent homes to millions. Like myself, the narrator of Beckett’s 1946 novella First Love, has ‘no bone to pick with graveyards’–a characteristically macabre pun–preferring the sweet smell of death to the stink of the living, who ‘in vain perfume themselves’.
Much of Beckett’s work focuses on death, or rather the act of dying and impossibility of experiencing it. First Love is no different, as the death central to its opening paragraphs is that of the narrator’s father, and it is by his tombstone that our nameless man concludes his own age–dating his life based on the death of another. Similar to some of Beckett’s most famous characters–Godot’s Vladimir and Estragon, Endgame’s Hamm and Clov, Happy Days’ Winnie–death is discussed openly, or through simple metaphor, but never achieved. First Love’s narrator describes his ideal epitaph, and the pleasurable image of mourners, but his demise will not occur, rather an oscillation around it, obsession never quite reaching satisfaction.
What differentiates First Love from the above-mentioned plays, aside from the fact that it is monologue and not script–the production notes propose ‘First Love was written intended to be read’ (and by this I assume they mean ‘out loud’, as how else would one imbibe the text?)–is its primary subject matter: love. That said, one must not deduce from this that First Love is heartfelt and affirmative–after all, Beckett wrote it. The relationship experienced by the narrator is twisted, manipulative, abusive and self-destructive but, ultimately, still love. In order to do justice to this fragile play between affection and loathing, intimacy and repulsion, Conor Lovett, a regular collaborator with producers Gare St Lazare Ireland, must imbue the text with spite, bitterness, longing and warmth.
The beloved, Lulu, is a prostitute, who seduces the narrator as he lies prostrate on the bench that forms his home. Their relationship does not begin well: ‘She began stroking my ankles. I considered kicking her in the cunt’. Looking at her face, he feels ambiguous, and rather than interpreting beauty he recalls his father’s deathbed visage. Despite the rocky start, our narrator takes a room in Lulu’s home, though not with gratitude: his odd sense of entitlement leads him to treat Lulu with distain, disrespect and disgust, despite the kindness she shows him. She becomes pregnant with a child of which his paternal responsibility is accorded, and at the time of its birth, he ups and leaves, although he is haunted by the new-born’s cries long after his departure: ‘For years I thought they would cease. Now I don’t think so anymore.’
Navigating this text in performance is not easy. As with Not I, most recently performed by the wonderful Lisa Dwan at the Royal Court Theatre, First Love is a minimalist one-person show and must be carried without the aid of supporting cast or set. Another challenge, typical of Beckett, is recreating the dark humour without laughs becoming more memorable than the rest of the text: yes, jokes are important in his work, but their importance lies in the juxtaposition between the negative. Dressed in an ill-fitting suit, battered Dr Martens and a hoody, Lovett blends in with the ubiquitous Beckettian tramps, the almost empty stage highlighting his self-imposed isolation. Lovett’s mannerisms are suitably unsettling, at times giving the impression of an addict jonesing for a hit, or an alcoholic struggling with the shakes. His delivery is marked by awkward pauses–sometimes for laughter, sometimes for thought. He breaks down the fourth wall by reacting to noises and movement in the audience, which I found unnecessarily distracting from the flow of delivery.
Perhaps I have been spoiled by my luck in the past 12 months to have seen Dwan perform Not I, Footfalls and Rockaby, Barry McGovern in the Gate Theatre’s production of Watt at the Barbican, and Juliet Stevenson as Winnie in the Young Vic’s Happy Days, but Lovett fell a little flat. First Love is around 80 minutes long, but almost half of that felt like a warm-up; it was not until the second half that I felt fully engaged with the performance. However, he inhabits the character well, creating a strangely sympathetic portrayal of an unfortunate creature who treats as he has been treated, and struggles to love. Productions of Beckett’s work are increasingly star-studded, with ticket prices that match, so to see a grassroots performance of a little-performed piece was genuinely appreciated, despite its flaws.