Interview with Marcus Lamb – First Love – The New Theatre
First Love by Samuel Beckett – Mouth on Fire
Jul 16th – Jul 28th @ 7.30pm
What was the first Beckett production you saw?
I think I may have seen a production of ‘Waiting for Godot’ in the Abbey or Peacock as a child but I was brought to so many plays back then by my actor parents that the early ones are nearly all a muddle in my mind. I definitely saw Conor Lovett, of Gare St Lazare, do the trilogy ‘Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable’ in the CHQ in the early 2000s and the show, in 3 sections, was breathtaking. Coincidentally my director, Cathal Quinn, was there too.
Was it love at first sight?
I was completely mesmerised and found my emotions moving between mirth and melancholy on the turn of a phrase. I had always assumed that Beckett was very serious and high-brow but found him to be quite the opposite: thoroughly humane and accessible. Conor’s cork accent, off-kilter timing and general mastery of the text, which was clearly deeply ingrained over time made the whole experience completely unforgettable and made me fall in love with Beckett’s work for the first time.
Do you have any memories of the first Beckett production you performed in?
My first full/ professional Beckett performance was in ‘A Piece of Monologue,’ for Mouth On Fire as part of a quadrology of short Beckett plays, which we called ‘Silence and Darkness.’ The performances were in the Focus Theatre, Dublin, now sadly closed down. The great actor Tom Hickey performed the same play (a solo piece lasting roughly twenty minutes of almost incessant speech) in the Focus theatre in 1985 and when asked by my director Cathal Quinn what it was like said that is was like “jumping off a cliff.” I think that he is exactly right, in the sense that you get into the psychological zone of the character, which is complete mental fragmentation and then let Beckett’s words pass through you like jazz notes through an instrument. On nights when I was on-song it was exhilarating – the closest thing to forgetting who I was and becoming someone else that I have ever experienced as an actor. A deeply spiritual experience. Despite playing a person in psychic pain I found the experience very uplifting. That’s Beckett’s writing. It transports you. It’s still one of my favourite of Beckett’s texts.
Beckett described this piece as “deeply personal”. Why do you think this is?
One suggestion is that he may have had a relationship with a woman who may have given birth to his child, or at least claimed that it was his.
Another is that the title ‘First Love’ refers to the Freudian idea, as child psychologist Melanie Klein puts it, of the infant’s first love being the attachment to the mother and breast and that we are all psychologically dependent on that connection for the rest of our lives. In this story Beckett, it seems, reverses that by making the protagonist psychologically dependent, not on his mother, (who is never mentioned in the story) but on his father. Beckett was very close to his father Bill and the simple tenderness of their relationship emerges throughout his work, whereas he had a difficult relationship with his mother May, who by all accounts was quite a stern woman who didn’t understand or appreciate Beckett’s work. The story begins with his father’s death and ends with the narrator abandoning what could be his child. The suggestion here is that having been abandoned, so to speak, by his own father, his psychological reliance on his father is so persistent that he is incapable of becoming one himself. This latter theme may have resonated with Beckett on a personal level.
Another yet again is the most obvious one…that she was the first person that the narrator had ever loved and made love to (albeit in an hilariously unromantic way).
As a non-actor, I find it amazing that you can learn such large blocks of text. How do you start learning something like this?
I think the first thing with any script is to know what you’re saying and why. My dad, the actor Peadar Lamb, always told me that you don’t learn your lines, you get to know the play inside and out and the lines go in anyway. If you understand the play then your lines and where your character fits in will become clear and embedded. It’s a bit like that with a one-man piece. You eat the elephant beginning with the toes, i.e. break it up into beats, which is just a fancy theatre word for sections. These sections can be delineated according to themes or thought changes, so that in performance you can switch gears according to the rhythm required. Performing Beckett is very like being an instrument and spending a lot of time alone with the text and just letting it sift down into your heart and mind means that when you’re performing it you will hopefully have found the rhythm and be able to let the words, so carefully chosen, play through you.
This was originally a short story. How do you go about converting it for the stage?
The fact that it is a short story gives us quite a lot of freedom in terms of staging. There are absolutely no stage directions there but you have to take clues from the text with regard to location, etc. Having said that, because the images Beckett creates with his words are so strong in terms of stage picture, less is more. You have to be selective. Being too illustrative would kill the delicacy of the words, so relative stillness can often be more powerful and let the audience experience the hilarious, poignant or even heart-breaking feelings and images within their own system. Usually the words paint the picture. Too much movement can be exhausting for the audience and distract them from the words, which are your safety net.