Bill Irwin’s acclaimed ‘On Beckett’ returns to Irish Repertory Theatre in a new virtual iteration

Off-Broadway’s Irish Repertory Theatre has come to the forefront during the coronavirus closure of live in-person performances with its prolific offerings of exceptional and varied virtual productions. The latest of its top-notch online presentations, On Beckett/In Screen, is a revised digital adaptation of On Beckett, conceived and performed by Bill Irwin, which made its New York debut with the company in 2018, and received a Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Alternative Theatrical Experience.

Bill Irwin. Photo courtesy of Irish Repertory Theatre.

Best known for his masterful command of the genre of clowning (in addition to his Tony Award-winning performance as Best Actor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf), Irwin, who asserts that he is not a scholar, explores a selection of works by Irish-born modernist and Nobel Prize recipient Samuel Beckett (Texts for NothingThe UnnamableWatt, and Waiting for Godot) from the perspective of an actor – one who has appeared multiple times in his plays and been profoundly affected by speaking his words. It’s a compelling homage to the writer, who, it should be mentioned, had similarly published a critical study of French author Marcel Proust (Beckett, as Irwin points out, lived most of his adult life in France and wrote many of his works in French, which he later translated into English), as well as an early essay in defense of the work of his friend and Irish compatriot James Joyce.

Bill Irwin. Photo courtesy of Irish Repertory Theatre.

Filmed live in the empty theater with a socially-distanced crew, Irwin delivers a highly informative and entertaining theatrical lecture, illustrating his personal commentary not with the usual projected images and texts, but with his own solo recitations, expressive costumes, and segments of physical comedy, including the impeccable “podium business” and “clown shtick” (which, he postulates, might be “a natural for Samuel Beckett’s writing?”). Co-directing with M. Florian Staab, Irwin plays to the camera and references our current pandemic times, while noting relevant details of Beckett’s biography, considering the tragi-comic, existentialist, and absurdist aspects of his writing, his use of the cliché of the comic Irishman, and the “language of particularity” of his stage directions for costuming the characters.

Irwin’s synthesis of body and intellect brilliantly evokes the “inner debate” and “visceral portrait of consciousness” captured in Beckett’s intriguing work. His illuminating performance is enhanced by Michael Gottlieb’s lighting, Charlie Corcoran’s minimalist scenic design, Staab’s music, sound design, and mixing, and Brian Petchers’ photography direction and editing. If you are a Beckett aficionado, or someone who would like to learn more about him and his haunting words, be sure to catch the enriching show this week, while it’s still online.

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, without intermission.

Photo by Carol Rosegg.

On Beckett/In Screen plays through November 22, 2020, on Irish Repertory Theatre’s YouTube channel. Reservations are free, but required, to access this digital event; an email with a link will be sent to registered viewers two hours before the selected streaming. A donation of $25 per viewer, to support the company’s programming, is suggested for those who can afford to give.


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