Old Earth

All praise to Spitalfields Music Summer Festival for programming this inspired collaboration. With huge wavering shadows flung against the eerily lit, high brick walls of this converted-warehouse venue. the first ever theatrical airing of four of Beckett's Fizzles, published in the 1970s, was performed by the incomparable Alan Howard and complemented, with great tact and beauty, by Alec Roth's specially commissioned choral interludes. Thanks to the assured orchestration of Jonathan Holmes's production, these elements fused into an experience of spellbinding poetic unity.

The Fizzles chosen here are short, dense prose texts that dramatise the most fundamental of all double-acts- that between a compulsively chattering consciousness and the decaying body that is its silent stooge and ventriloquial vehicle. There's a black Irish comedy about the precocious defeatism of this inner ghost and yearning to be free from the Escher-like impasse of their interdependency.

Alan Howard in Old Earth

Photo by Jamie Archer

Roth's wordless choruses pick up on the hypnotically recurring, short phrases of a prose-style that itself aspires to the condition of music. Sung across the space by two opposing groups, the interludes mirror the doubleness and the abstract patterning of the text, while providing a sympathetic environment for it with their own humanely shifting textures and generously reverberant depths.

Sitting amid a tangle of oak roots like some well-born vagrant, Alan Howard uses a voice that can drift into high, quavering quizzicality and a face that can assume a donnish-Eeyore look of lugubrious musing to communicate, with extraordinary subtlety and sensitivity, the trapped, tragi-comic nature of the relationship between ghost and machine and between man and old earth. He pitches perfectly the reciprocal balance between resentment and qualifying self-reproach in a sequence such as "it was he who had a life, I didn't have a life, a life not worth having, because of me" and the intricate variations between degrees of solicitude ("I'll feed it all it needs" in one text" and "I'll feed it all it needs, all it needs to end, to say I no more" in the next).

The third Fizzle here during which Howard blinks and flinches eloquently to the recorded sound of the inner voice makes you long to see him play Krapp's Last Tape and the gentle wonderment he brings to the evening's conclusion leads you to hope that Old Earth will soon be revived.

Paul Taylor

The Independent, 20.6.2012

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