Beckett in Damascus

Julianne Moore in Not I by Samuel Beckett (from the ‘Beckett on Film’ season, Channel 4, 2001).

I made a brief visit to Damascus in Syria in March, to talk about television plays by Samuel Beckett.  My visit was supported by the British Council in Syria, and was part of a longer programme titled ‘Beckett in Damascus’.  The participants in this programme of activities were members of Damascus Theatre Lab (DTL), a forum that brings together directors, actors, playwrights, stage designers and cultural critics.  The DTL aims to create a more energetic cultural scene for live theatre performance, to complement the ‘official’ theatre and music staged in the city’s major venues.  The founder of the DTL and my host on my trip was Dr Oussama Ghanam, a native of Damascus who gained his PhD in theatre in Paris and now teaches theatre at the Institute of Dramatic Arts in Damascus.

I gave a presentation first on Beckett’s five plays written for television, the subject of my recent book Beckett on Screen.  These dramas are little-known, but introduced what was to become a theme of the DTL workshop, namely the relationship between performance for the stage and for the screen. We also analysed the spatial composition of Beckett’s plays for TV. We discussed ideas of flatness and depth in TV images and theatre staging, visual composition, and the role of the camera’s point of view.

In the second session of the day, I focused on the TV adaptation of Beckett’s theatre plays in Britain and Germany.  The topic of TV versions of theatre was of particular interest to my Syrian colleagues because of the different role of television there in comparison to Europe.  Syrian television has no equivalent to Britain’s public service broadcasting policy, and our workshop discussed how it is that Beckett’s work has made it to the airwaves.

Billie Whitelaw in Not I by Samuel Beckett (BBC2, 1975).

For the BBC in the 1960s up until the 1980s, Beckett’s Nobel Prize-winning work lent prestige to TV and his plays were screened in mid-evening. Beckett was usually willing to offer advice about the plays, or co-direct them for the screen. The plays offered the BBC opportunities to emphasise excellent performances by well-known actors such as Ronald Pickup or Billie Whitelaw, who were experienced Beckett performers in the theatre and recreated or adapted their work for the screen.  The image above from the BBC’s version of Not I in 1975 shows Billie Whitelaw performing in the TV version of a London theatre production.

On the other hand though, Beckett had strong views about how his work should be realised.  For example, the language and setting of the plays could not be altered from the pre-existing play text. In comparison to more mainstream drama, Beckett’s plays are very slow, and seemed boring to a significant number of BBC viewers. In our workshop, we assessed these questions of suitability for television by discussing three different TV versions of Beckett’s theatre play Krapp’s Last Tape.

Jack McGowran in Krapp’s Last Tape (PBS, 1971).

Patrick Magee in Krapp’s Last Tape (BBC2, 1972).

Harold Pinter in Krapp’s Last Tape (BBC4, 2006).

In a further lengthy workshop, we focused on the Beckett on Film project in which versions of all 19 of Beckett’s theatre plays were staged for the camera in 2001. The image at the top of this post is from the 2001 version of Not I.  Michael Colgan and the film producer Alan Maloney produced the films, with backing from the Irish TV channel RTE, Britain’s Channel 4 television, and the producers of the musical Riverdance, among others. Channel 4 used an unconventional pattern of scheduling that must have contributed to the season’s low ratings. By 2004, the plays were being scheduled as educational broadcasts for schools.  Beckett, it seems, has become canonical and significant, but has lost his prime-time slot.

We discussed the visual and performance style of some of the Beckett on Film adaptations, especially because DTL members were working on performances of three Beckett plays. There was a general wish that Syrian television might adapt short Beckett dramas.  Drama is very popular on Syrian TV, with the highest-profile serials being screened to coincide with the holy month of Ramadan.  Some DTL participants are performers in Syrian soap opera, and relished the idea of working with a very different aesthetic.

It was a great pleasure to visit Damascus even for such a short time.  I am very grateful to the British Council for its support of my visit and especially to Oussama Ghanam for his generous hospitality.  The Damascus Theatre Lab participants were bursting with ideas and creative energy.

Jonathan Bignell