Old Earth

Old Earth is a haunting meditation on the human struggle to articulate the ineffable.

The Spitalfields Festival's imaginative policy of staging performances in unusual venues finds the audience for Old Earth filing into a cavernous former warehouse, now a "creative and cultural space".

The entrance is guarded by an imposing, black-clad bouncer who struggles to compose his face into a suitably welcoming expression for the devotees of experimental music and drama.

Within the darkened space, dead leaves strew the floor, and a leafless tree springs from a mound of decaying vegetation growing against one wall.

Spotlights are disconcertingly turned on the audience while from the shadows, the voices of performers clad in drab, enveloping garments, as though about to set out on some bleak but inevitable journey, begin to rise above the anticipatory chatter.

Alan Howard in Samuel Beckett's Old EarthOld Earth


Alan Howard in Samuel Beckett's Old Earth at Village Underground
Photo: Jamie Archer

The world premiere of Old Earth, given by theatre company Jericho and the singers of Harry Christophers's ensemble, The Sixteen, brings together four short prose texts by Samuel Beckett with specially commissioned music by the composer Alec Roth. Beckett composed his "Fizzles", a cycle of eight short prose pieces, between 1960 and 1972. All but one were in French, under the title "Foirades", and later translated into English by the author. (In both languages the titles convey overtones of humiliating failure.)

The collection of fragments depicts the struggle of a character restlessly poised - apparently at the point of death - between memory and forgetting, reaching for a connection between the past and the present which remains perpetually just beyond his grasp.

Beckett stretches language to the point of syntactical disintegration as he depicts the spirit wandering in a purgatorial wilderness before returning to places where the memory of former happiness can be dimly discerned in disjointed images of once familiar scenes.

The looping, incantatory cadences of the four monologues, dolefully performed by Alan Howard, costumed in the standard garb of one of Beckett's hapless old corpses-in-waiting - stained overcoat, disgraceful trousers, bad hat - are punctuated and mirrored by the intricately patterned harmonies of Alec Roth's wordless vocalizations for the unaccompanied choir, who perform in the drab garments of transients.

They are conducted by Harry Christophers, who enters wittily into the spirit of the piece by wearing his traditional conductor's tail coat, tattered and distressed, over faded black jeans.

Lucy Wilkinson's design makes powerful use of the vast space, placing the choir on either side of Howard on his mound, with the audience huddled in a semi-circle as though sheltering from the darkness beyond.

If Jonathan Holmes's direction doesn't quite draw out the grim wit that characterizes even Beckett's darkest writing, this remarkable collaboration is nevertheless a haunting meditation on the human struggle to articulate the ineffable.

Jane Shilling

The Daily Telegraph, 19.6. 2012.


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