Thursday, January 15, 2009

Under the Radar - "First Love"

Photo/Ros Kavanagh

Conor Lovett has to be one of the calmest performers ever to address an audience as cunts. It's an appropriately reserved attitude, for it fits the weary attitude of Samuel Beckett, and it smoothly blends with the disparaging comedy of even his "text" pieces (i.e., monologues), specifically First Love. Lovett has had a long time to perfect this; as an artistic director for the Gare St Lazare Players Ireland, he has purposefully immersed himself in the language so that audiences can wallow in Beckett's world without the fear of drowning. (You can listen to their adaptation of Beckett's radio plays here.)

First Love follows the narrative of a man looking back on his 25-year-old self's "marriage," or what is appropriately his first love. (Just to clarify the mood, that first line reads "I associate, rightly or wrongly, my marriage with the death of my father, in time.") The protagonist speaks of his affection for stillness and quiet, his apathy for the world, and disdain for the "vain perfumes" of mankind. Accordingly, with his father's protection inhumed, he is cast out. Eventually--because love, like erections, cannot always be controlled--he is taken in by Lulu (who he decides to call Anna), a prostitute. (On the subject of erections, Beckett puts it better: "One is no longer oneself, on such occasions, and it is painful to be no longer oneself, even more painful if possible than one is. For when one is one knows what to do to be less so, whereas when one is not one is any old one irredeemably.")

Because this is not one of Beckett's tersely managed plays, Mr. Lovett and his wife, director Judy Hegarty Lovett, have the opportunity to shake things up as they please. Unsurprisingly, given Beckett's consistent tone, they play it close to the belt. The set consists of two stacked benches and the lighting is just a despairing spotlight wide, all of which is fine for Mr. Lovett, who rarely moves and is at ease inhabiting the body of a man who despises action. As enjoyable as the long pauses and Mr. Lovett's quivering jaw are, we thankfully get his interior monologue as well, clearly spoken, but with the sort of intensity that comes not from force but from presence. Best of all are the surprising bits, as when Mr. Lovett cracks himself up at the thought of Anna disrobing for him so as to show him her round, pregnant belly. (To keep things in context, he is struck by how "the more naked she was the more cross-eyed" and a few lines later, offers her the thoughtful advice to "Abort, abort.")

Sometimes it seems that the smaller the scale, the more effective the tragedy, and with First Love, things can get no smaller or simpler than this: "Either you love or you don't." It's a bittersweet conclusion, but so far as drama goes, it's an entirely sweet production.

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