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Hello, Sam Redux 2016 – Beckett in London Festival – Review

HELLO SAMHello, Sam Redux 2016, as this ‘mixed media installation’ is properly titled, is more of an art exhibit than a piece of theatre. At a stretch it could fall under the broad umbrella of ‘immersive theatre’, as to get the full benefit of the piece, the audience member must move around the exhibition area, and listen to various extracts addressed to ‘Sam’, as Samuel Beckett was known to his friends. It can, however, be enjoyed (if enjoyed is the right word) just as well from the auditorium stalls, without any requirement to go on stage at all, if the audience member, or ‘visitor’, chose accordingly.

Having never reviewed an exhibit before – and certainly not as a piece of performance art – I turned to the Web for a tip or two on what I ought to emphasise. One particular art site proved most helpful, though I failed at their first hurdle, “Take notes”. ‘Too late for that,’ I thought to myself, and there was (deliberately) insufficient lighting in the exhibition space to do so in any event. “Trust your own observations and your own thoughts,” the site added, as well as: “Review the art, not the reality purportedly recorded by the art”.

So, my own observations and thoughts. This being press night and an event important enough to warrant a visit and a speech from the Ambassador of Ireland to Great Britain, His Excellency Dan Mulhall, it would have been just about forgivable if there was a bit of scramble whenever one of only three listening posts became available. But all was very civilised and respectful, with people civilly passing a set of headphones to the next person whenever the time came.

This also being press night there were drinks and loud conversation going on in the bar below, and some of the noise inevitably leaked into the exhibition space, without detracting from the simultaneous solemnity and positivity of the piece. The peaceful atmosphere in the theatre proper was not only a world away from the animated discussions downstairs but also from the hectic noise of central London overall, such that I felt after a few minutes that I had entered into something very different.

As to the art (and not any of its apparent assertions), the spoken words are sometimes reflective, sometimes witty, like those eulogies at funerals that make people smile. It’s all calmly spoken, and at a pace slightly slower than would normally be expected for what is supposed to be a telephone conversation, or at least one side of it. Nonetheless, it’s intriguing to listen to, and quite educating – at least for me – gaining an understanding of how much ‘Sam’ is appreciated even after his passing. But I wonder if the contributors to Hello, Sam Redux 2016 were as gracious and eloquent to Beckett in his life as they are now in his death.

With just a horizontal lifelike sculpture and no other props, displays or music, my train of thought was inevitably drawn towards themes of loss and bereavement. There isn’t a prescribed way of going about the exhibit – nobody said to me that I should begin in a certain place and continue to another. It was good to find out about Beckett (as opposed to enjoying his writing) and the sort of person he was through these recordings. One of the speakers was touched by Beckett’s assurances that it is okay not to get everything right first time, or even after that. Beckett’s oft-quoted phrase from his Westward Ho (1983) came to mind: “All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

A decent insight into Beckett’s life and work, this installation is a perfect complement to the rest of the Beckett in London Festival, and, although brief (I was in the exhibition space for just over half an hour), it is worth experiencing.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

“Hello, Sam” redux
An interactive art exhibition by Brian O’Doherty
Part of BECKETT IN LONDON
A festival of Beckett’s prose on stage featuring theatre, music and visual art
The Print Room at the Coronet, 103 Notting Hill Gate, London W11 3LB
http://www.the-print-room.org/

Exhibition Open
Monday 23 May – Sunday 5 June 2016
Timings:
Tuesday 24 May, 10:00am to 5:00pm
Wednesday 25 May, 10:00am to 6:00pm
Thursday 26 May, 10:00am to 5:00pm
Sunday 29 May, 10:00am to 2:00pm
Monday 30 May, 10:00am to 6:00pm
Tuesday 31 May, 10:00am to 5:00pm
Wednesday 1 June, 10:00am to 6:00pm
Thursday 2 June, 10:00am to 5:00pm
Sunday 5 June, 10:00am to 2:00pm

Made specially for Dublin Contemporary 2011, where it was shown at the National Gallery of Ireland, Hello, Sam is a multi-media installation artwork by Brian O’Doherty that attempts to engage with the myth of Beckett’s persona, as well as the mystery of his work, by staging a situation which calls on the viewer’s imaginative participation and ‘willing suspension of disbelief’.

On this occasion Brian O’Doherty has reimagined Hello, Sam in a work entitled Hello, Sam Redux, 2016 for the Print Room’s main-stage to accompany Here All Night, part of Gare St Lazare’s Beckett in London Festival.

Circling around themes of death, resurrection, mourning and celebration, the complex mixed-media work has as its main visual focus a suspended effigy, framed by a skeletal rectangular space made of rope. The black effigy’s bog-like roughness introduces intimations of past time. At the corners of the enclosing rectangle, soaring lines search out the highest points of the stage in which the figure is doubly enclosed. Above the figure, a single light-bulb illuminates the darkened stage.

Three stations, each marked by a chair and headphones, face the effigy and introduce the next phase of the work. The visitor, seated on a chair, is invited to listen to a spoken text that is looped at each station.

Texts created and spoken by Michael Colgan and Eoin O’Brien, both of whom knew Samuel Beckett, subscribe to a single ‘conceit’: that Beckett is still alive and is on the other end of the phone. Thus the ‘Hello, Sam’. We all, says the artist, speak to our dead, and in that way bring them to a version of suspended life. The speakers share experiences and in this way annotate and animate the anonymous horizontal figure.

The third station in this iteration of the artwork includes for the first time the voice of Jack MacGowran reciting Beckett’s Texts for Nothing #8, contributed by Beckett to O’Doherty’s seminal artwork Aspen 5+6, 1967.

On this occasion the fourth station is the audience, observers who sit in tiered silence as witnesses, celebrants and mourners through the transparent fourth wall of the stage, framing this imagined no place and engaging time with memories.

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