Dylan Quinn reimagines Samuel Beckett's protest play Catastrophe
In 1982, in a rare piece of specific contextualisation, Samuel Beckett dedicated his one-act play Catastrophe to the poet and future Czech president, Václav Havel, who was at the time serving a four and a half year prison sentence for what were described as ‘subversive activities’.
Beckett was one of a group of distinguished writers, including Arthur Miller and Elie Wiesel, who were invited by the International Association for the Defence of Artists to show their support for Havel. The play was premiered at Une Nuit Pour Václav Havel (A Night for Václav Havel) at the 1982 Avignon Festival.
Although the two would later become friends and mutual admirers, at that point Beckett and Havel had not actually met, but the former needed little persuasion to signal his disgust at the persecution of artists in eastern Europe and to protest against the latter's voice being silenced while in jail.
Contrary to initial impressions, Catastrophe is less about pessimism than about endurance. A silent figure, Protagonist, stands on a plinth, expressionless and unreactive. He is degraded, humiliated and stripped of his humanity by a domineering Director and his Assistant, as they prepare him for some kind of indeterminate public performance.
He seems helpless and utterly compliant, but deep in his soul there is still a vein of defiance. In the play’s final symbolic moment, the figure eyeballs the audience with a cold, penetrating stare. The critics were confused by the ending, deeming it ambiguous. But, in one of his most enduring quotes, Beckett faced down the doubters, declaring: 'There’s no ambiguity at all. He’s saying: you bastards, you haven’t finished me yet!'
30 years later, dancer and choreographer Dylan Quinn fixed his attention on Catastrophe and set out to create a new performance piece as an artistic response. Premiered, appropriately, at the Happy Days International Beckett Festival in Quinn’s home town of Enniskillen, it has since been reworked, pared back to an even greater degree of abstract minimalism and is all the more powerful for it.
Performed in the intimate Upstairs space of The MAC in front of a small audience of hardy dance enthusiasts, Quinn's interpretation picks up on Beckett's play’s subtle commentary on power relations, speaking out in a distinctively eloquent dance language.
Its title is Fulcrum, a word whose dictionary definition is ‘the point or support on which a lever pivots’. It is a good title. The vocabulary is all about balance and counterbalance as the two performers, Quinn and German dancer Jenny Ecke, embark on a quiet struggle for control, influence, security and protection.
Together with composer/singer Andy Garbi, they have forged a strikingly instinctive three-way creative relationship, whose collaborative spirit results in an unfolding non-narrative that is hypnotic, seamless and completely integrated.
On a darkened stage, Garbi’s soundscape is heard in the distance like a gathering wind, building to gale force in sound and impact. The two dancers are present but invisible, lit briefly by blinding flashes of light like snapshots of motionless humanity – compare Beckett’s Protagonist, immobile, speechless and almost totally passive.
Garbi’s score mutates into a sequence of intriguing abstract sounds, haunting chants, terrifying bombardment effects and primeval groans and creaks, which seem to emanate from the very depths of the ground beneath us.
Physically, Quinn and Ecke offer an attractive contest; he stocky and grizzled, she rangy, lithe and controlled. He is, apparently, the dominating force, she the undermined victim; he Beckett’s Director, she his Protagonist.
Their movements flow from hesitant and sensual into a witty little sequence where, to the sounds of cricking and scraping and ratcheting, they move and stretch their necks like strange creatures from prehistoric times.
Do not go in search of narrative certainties in this piece, which is, purely and simply, about dance. The two bodies meld and fuse into each other, sometimes kindly, sometimes aggressively but always with total trust and sureness of touch. But, very gradually, the power shifts as Ecke begins to assert her influence on Quinn’s wounded lion-like figure.
And in the way that the icy stare of Beckett’s submissive figure is designed to shock and provoke, so too does the sequence when Ecke crushes the life out of her partner, prompting sharp, wounded gasps of breath, which jolt the audience into a very visceral reaction.
The tension rises with the increasing complexity of the movements and one fears that the ending will be fast, furious and probably violent. But no, this compelling 45-minute piece ends softly, the two bodies interlocking like a sweetly formed conch shell, its perfect peace achieving a sense of reconciliation in contrast with Beckett’s restless, challenging vision.
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