Friday, 17 August 2012

Samuel Beckett's Watt performed by Barry McGovern, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

*** update 13/10/2012

On Twitter, @EdIntFest (the Edinburgh International Festival) tweeted me the following with a link to the podcast of the Conversation with Barry McGovern regarding Samuel Beckitt's Watt.  I've managed to play the podcast and confirm that it was indeed me 'Watt asked' the first question!  Thanks for reminding me of a very pleasant visit to the Hub this year.

@profwhitestick Is that you who asks the first question on the Barry McGovern podcast from his Conversations event

*** end of update

The Edinburgh International Festival included in the programme a one man show with Barry McGovern presenting all the characters in Samuel Beckett’s Watt.  The book has been published and a visually impaired person had said he had downloaded podcasts about it. 

I was unfamiliar with Samuel Beckett’s Watt and occasionally a ‘difficult’ book does not come over very well as an audio book.  Sometimes an initial introduction to a difficult work can be approached via a performance in the theatre.  Beckett wrote plays, radio shows and his understanding of how language works is obvious when the dialogue is heard. 

I booked seats at the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh and being visually impaired managed to get a concession in a “restricted” view seat.  This was probably ideal as the acoustics in the upper circle are usually better than in the stalls.  This applies in the Usher Hall and in the old Royal Albert Hall.  I have heard pins drop in St Paul’s Cathedral in London and in the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City.

I did not miss a word of Barry McGovern’s performance and my review of it can be found on the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) site:

On Monday I was due to attend a Conversation with Barry McGovern at the Hub. This is located in the old Highland St Johns in Castle Hill at the top end of the Royal Mile (I had a wonderful Raspberry Pavlova or cranachan there last year - ).

The staff escorted me to my seat in the Great Hall of the Hub and I was chatting with some visitors from Brisbane before the Conversation started.  It turned out that they were to go to see both Watt and Electra.  One of them had read my review.  Working in the theatre-coaching branch of academic research, she had experience of coaching visually impaired actors and we discussed audio cues and non verbal communication problems.

Following the Conversation, I was able to chat with Barry McGovern afterwards.  My review of this is on the EIF website:

The next phase was the touch tour of the set at the Royal Lyceum for the Watt show, which had been sold out for the run.

The staff at this theatre are very friendly and I was soon in a group with two describers, companions, a dog and two other visually impaired people.  At the end of the touch tour I was able to talk with some of the others and find that Edinburgh has a group of self help theatre goers, mainly with sight loss later in life and often living on their own.  Some of them also attend the Artlink programmes as well as doing things themselves. 

I was ‘spotted’ by one of the visually impaired persons who had heard me say something at the Conversation with Barry McGovern- we could not have recognised ourselves visually.  Another cried out: “So you are Professor Whitestick!”  Her husband’s guide dog came over for a sniff on the stage.  The social events of some of these access facilities can be useful in getting local tips.

To some people it may have appeared that I had done Beckett’s Watt back to front but, as the show ends with posing a question about direction of travel, I’ll leave it there.

This is my review of the touch tour:

Touch Tour of Royal Lyceum Set for Watt
14th August

A touch tour of the set in a theatre allows visually impaired people to get their bearings from an audio point of view.  The touch tour allows us to walk the set and inspect any props.  Having been interested in what the German language would call Theaterwissenschaft since my student days in Munich, I am always keen to find out how a piece of drama, or any other art form for that matter, works.  This is the scientist in me. 

A touch tour can be done after the event or before. Usually a touch tour is available before an audio described performance.  This had been scheduled, though I had “seen” the show three days previous to the touch tour and had come because I wanted to understand more of the Barry McGovern performance. 

We gathered in the bar and were introduced to each other.  One of the attendees had been to the conversation at the Hub and we would not have recognised each other, but he had heard me pose a question about music in the piano tuner section. It turned out he knew Samuel Beckett’s Watt from podcasts. 

With Watt there are few props and these are used in the beginning and seldom referred to again. However, the lighting in Watt is quite important and I was told about the spotlighting with geometric precision.  For me this is similar to going back to an artwork in a gallery.

We examined the coat stand with the shabby great coat and the hat (was it a Homburg, Trilby or a Pork Pie Hat?).  I lifted one of the suitcases. Barry McGovern removes the coat and hat and puts the cases down.  I had not seen that as I had been in the Upper Circle and only caught a faint glimpse of Barry McGovern on the night. 

We examined the chair and then a snatch of the choral piece, which marks a break, was played - probably as a sound check, but that was a bit of serendipity. As an audio clue and a chance for McGovern to take a short speaking break, I mentioned to another participant that Samuel Becket had written a soprano part which McGovern had filled in.  We joked about not giving the plot away. 

Visually impaired people are constantly navigating by sound, so if an actor moves the sound angles will change.  I can detect lighting changes and these are usually pauses in the performance indicating a change of mood, reflection or a passage in time or even an ending.

The two describers, Bridget Stevens and Rosie Wild, had attended rehearsals and performances in order to arrange an audio description which was scheduled to start some 5 minutes before the beginning of the performance.     At the outset it may have appeared to some sighted people that it would be pointless to undertake a touch tour of a minimal set.   Watt was written during occupied France and marks a switch in Beckett’s choice of language in his writing.   Beckett considered the French language more philosophical and what could be more philosophical than a touch tour of a bare set? Discuss.