‘Company’: a Mabou Mines production directed by Honora Fergusson and Frederick Neumann at the Public Theater, New York City, January 1983
Given a theatrical season of little moment and less dramatic truth, the decision to adapt Company for the stage sounds like a fine idea. In praxis, though, the Mabou Mines production misguidedly betrays Beckett’s tones and the intended experience of Company. That experience is decidedly silent, readerly, and solitary.
Although a developmental line exists between the recent plays A piece of monologue (1979) or Rockaby (1981) and Company (also 1981), this does not automatically imply that a staged version of Company can produce a similarly beautiful theatrical occasion. Beckett purposefully and knowingly chose the printed page rather than the stage for the words and pause—like white spaces of Company. Unlike A piece of monologue or Rockaby, Company does not require a specific set, precisely timed lights, or any props at all for its complete realization. And, most importantly, Company needs no spectators. In fact, Company demands to be left alone. This is not to say that all stage adaptations of Beckett’s prose works are doomed from the generic start. Many fine critics have admired the Mabou Mines productions of The lost ones and Mercier and Camier, as well as Joseph Chaikin’s performance in Texts, a 1981 adaptation of Stories and Texts for nothing. Given the ‘content’ of Company, however, and its emphasis upon the memorable nature of silent—if not solipsistic—narration, Beckett’s choice of a readerly ‘form’ makes the best aesthetic sense. In this way, when Honora Fergusson and Frederick Neumann, who both perform and direct Company, add ‘theatrical’ elements and directorial flourishes—along with Philip Glass’ newly—composed music—for the purposes of stage adaptation, they immediately detract from the text’s possibilities and misinterpret its actual imperatives.
For a theatrical space of enforced intimacy, Mabou Mines gives the audience only three rows of about a dozen seats per row, and the spectators sit a few feet away from the flat, sparsely adorned playing platform. To define the set’s boundaries and create three state ‘walls’, Gerald Marks has designed three large, white, satellite receiver-looking dishes or discs. These screens reflect the set’s varying lights; and, at times, they transmit Neumann’s shadow or distort his voice. The metaphoric effect, of course, is one of receiving spaced-out communications from the limitless beyond. On a level of concrete theatrical significance, however, the screens remain merely decorative at best. Surely, Company is neither a science-fiction fantasy nor a narrative lacking rich resonances and metaphors of its own.
Also on the platform at the show’s beginning, we see two chairs, one lamp, and a table. Here, the designer takes an opposite tack and offers us a ‘naturalistic’ illusion of a living room. This design not only conflicts with the use of the screens, but also domesticates and dilutes the stark yet powerful glory of Company’s atopic words.
Playing the ‘Deviser of the voice and of its hearer and of himself’, Frederick Neumann lumbers on to the set in a tattered overcoat, old boots, and a hat, complete with cane and cigarette. He begins: ‘A voice comes to one in the dark. Imagine’. Neumann delivers the exact words of Company for an hour and a half, only breaking mid-way through the text for a short intermission. But within moments of Neumann’s first entrance on an already dubious set, many other visual and aural problems, as well as poor directorial choices, become apparent.
Neumann, a beefy looking man with a barrel chest, seems wrong for this part — especially so if we accept the critical opinion that Company contains autobiographical snippets from Beckett’s early Dublin days. The lanky, emaciated, and genuinely haunted look of David Warrilow (a former member of Mabou Mines who performs exquisitely in A piece of monologue) seems far more germane to the role. Moreover, Neumann’s irrepressible good health, good cheer, and abundant physical energy transform Company’s ‘Voice’ into a jocular and frenetic man who inexplicably possesses an intensely lyrical tale which he wants to share with an audience. Three poor judgments converge here: as played by Neumann, the Voice lacks the pensive sensitivity of recollected pain necessary along with a felt connection to his current words. And, most mistakenly, Neumann acknowledges the existence of the theatre audience, by self-consciously playing to us. Spectator complicity dramatically completes a production of Not I and A piece of monologue, but in Company it creates an extraneous dynamic which perverts the communication circuit at hand.
Without the presentation of a character feeling his lines, we are left with a recital of incongruous words, tones, and gratuitous gestures. In short, Neumann’s body and voice grate against the spirit of the text. When he jovially remarks ‘Same flat tone’ one wonders why Neumann did not heed one of the only performance cues in Company.
The directors of Company exhibit little understanding of Beckett’s rhythmic pauses and generous use of air between the text’s paragraphs. Instead of realizing these moments as protracted beats of stage silence, they fill the time—as if it were empty and boring—with taped loops of Philip Glass’s music for a jazzed up and certainly trumped up effect. If the directors trusted the text or the audience’s ability to endure the ‘pain’ of these requisite pauses, then these moments would have meaning and quiet beauty. With the music as filler, though, a sense of timid chatter invades the entire production.
In Part II, the stage becomes bare — save for the screens. When Neumann reaches the summerhouse sequence, all hopes for a credible adaptation fizzle. Honora Fergusson, as the summertime lover in question, silently appears upstage, awash in red light (why red?), yet obscured by an oversized hat. Her intrusive and dramatically useless presence underscores the directors’ purely theatrical vision of Company. Unfortunately, this vision excludes textual understanding; for the actual and live presence of others from the past, in the here and now, runs contrary to the nature of the narrative. And, indeed, the nature of narrative, not the nature of dramatic re-representation.