The first time producer and director Michael Colgan brought I'll Go On to Edinburgh, he and actor Barry McGovern were chased by police. That was in 1986, when McGovern was performing his solo stage adaptation of Beckett's trilogy of novels, Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable, at the Assembly Rooms as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Colgan and McGovern had been out with a bucket of paste putting up posters for the production by the Gate Theatre, Dublin, which Colgan had been artistic director of for three years, when the local constabulary intervened.
Twenty-seven years on, Colgan is still at the Gate, and the pair are returning to Edinburgh with McGovern revisiting I'll Go On for a season of Beckett works as part of Edinburgh International Festival. Rather than opt for the familiar terrain of Beckett's great stage works such as Waiting For Godot, Endgame and Happy days, however, Colgan and EIF have opted to present stagings of work originally penned for radio and TV, as well as other prose works alongside I'll Go On.
The Gate will present three pieces, while the Pan Pan company will present two. The season kicks off with Eh Joe, a half-hour miniature first seen on TV in 1966. This production will be directed by Atom Egoyan and performed by Michael Gambon alongside the disembodied voice of Penelope Wilton. Following I'll Go On, Colgan will direct First Love, a novella penned by Becket in 1946. Pan Pan will present two radio plays, Embers, first broadcast in 1959, and All That Fall, first heard in 1956.
As well the five show, there will be a marathon screening of the nineteen films of Beckett's entire dramatic canon, co-produced by Colgan at the turn of the century. These include Waiting For Godot with McGovern in the cast, Catastrophe, David Mamet directing Harold Pinter, Rebecca Pidgeon and John Gielgud in Catastrophe, and Breath, directed by Damien Hirst. This followed on from the gate's Beckett Festival in 1991, when Colgan staged all nineteen works. These were restaged in New York in 1996, and in London three years later.
“There's a little bit when you're doing something for a long time, that you don't want to get bored with yourself,” says Colgan of his choices for the Edinburgh Beckett season. “The Gate doing Beckett has become a brand in a way, but at the same time it could be both a brand and a yawn if you're not careful. We've produced more Beckett than any other theatre, but you try and mix it up a bit. I admire Pan Pan a lot. They're very different to the Gate, but what you try and do is try and get some kind of homogeneity to a season to give it cohesion. I had seen Pan Pan do All That Fall, and then the idea came of the gate doing plays by Sam that weren't written for the theatre. You become more of a missionary when it comes to Beckett. You proselytise it, and you want everyone to get it.”
This is in stark contrast with what might be seen as an academic hi-jack of Beckett, which, despite clear vaudeville influences in the work, gives it a rarefied image which can make some audiences afraid of it.
“Academe still holds onto Beckett,” says Colgan, “and I think they did damage to it. They set up this bleak little philosophical world, and of course that's there, but they're missing the humour, and I think we were the first to look at that. The reason Beckett is so good, is that he's able to survive scrutiny and interpretation.”
Colgan's conversation is peppered with anecdotes involving Ralph Fiennes reciting First Love down the phone to him while walking through New York, or of joshing with David Mamet and Harold Pinter that they maybe didn't know the text of Catastrophe well enough. Best of all are the yarns about the man Colgan calls Sam, and how his whole journey with Beckett's work began.
“I was terrified when I got the job at the Gate,” and wrote to Barry and asked if he'd do Beginning To End, which was this brilliant thing that Jack MacGowran did with bits of Godot and all the other plays in. Barry and I had seen it when we were students, and I wrote to Sam to ask permission. He wrote back to say Jack's widow had the rights, but then came the immortal line, 'there remains the possibility of a different play.'”
it took nine months for I'll Go On to be completed before its Edinburgh debut.
“It's getting easier to get people to get Beckett now,” Colgan says. “It wasn't then, but now something like Waiting For Godot is practically a commercial choice. I suppose I'm on a mission with Beckett, and it's the best job in the world, because I got to meet Beckett and all these other people, and that's a joy. Why I do the job I do, it's because of the company I keep.”
Eh Joe, Royal Lyceum Theatre, August 23rd, 27th-31st; I'll Go On, Royal Lyceum Theatre, August 25-26, 28th, 31st; First Love, Royal Lyceum Theatre, August 28th-31st; Embers, Kings Theatre, August 24th-25th; All That Fall, The Hub, August 25th-26th.
The Herald, August 2013