Fear and self-loathing at the Baxter Theatre

Posted: July 6, 2009 in Theatre & Event Reviews and Interviews
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First Love ;  Directed by:   Judy Hegarty Lovett

Performed by:  Conor Lovett

Review by:  Astrid Stark

First Published:  Sunday Independent: 

On the surface, and for most people, the experience of falling in love is a much anticipated and desirable condition.  However, Samuel Beckett inflicts his protagonist in First Love with a macabre array of obsessive disorders and disagreeable personality traits that lead to the ultimate triumph of self-loathing over love.

It is the story of a man who is evicted by his father’s death from the room in his family home.  Despite inheriting an undisclosed amount of money, he chooses his comfort in the form of park bench. Here he meets a women, who turns out to be a prostitute, and the only creature that attempts to treat him with love; her broken kind of love.  In a brazen display of abusive opportunism he moves in with her and it all goes to hell in a handbasket from thereon. First Love, Photo 2, Conor Lovett captivates the audience with his interpretation of Samuel Beckket's prose. - Copy

Irish actor, Conor Lovett, has been described as the finest living Beckett interpreter and he certainly handles Beckett’s complex stream of consciousness style prose with practised ease. Lovett has performed 17 Beckett roles in 24 different Beckett productions internationally.  Performing a 70 minute dramatic monologue is no mean feat.  Truly impressive is the way that Lovett at times spurts out his lines as if he did not anticipate what he was going to say next, and then seems surprised – and quasi apologetic – at what he has just said. 

Beckett’s tortured prose describes one man’s nihilistic journey which is laced with narcissism, sordid humour, and unapologetic misogyny; which is at times difficult to stomach. The spare, dark stage, on which only two topsy-turvy park benches appear, adds to the feeling of isolation, madness and altered reality.  Lovett immerses himself into his character and slowly reels in the audience.

Lovett’s nameless character has an unhealthy obsession with his bodily functions, and on the topic of constipation – ponders, “Who cares how things pass, provided they pass”.  He drily notes, “Man is still today, at the age of twenty-five, at the mercy of an erection, physically too, from time to time, it’s the common lot, even I was not immune, if that may be called an erection.”  Self-indulgent and seemingly oblivious to the venom locked within his words, he speaks of his meeting with the woman on the bench, “It did not escape her naturally, women smell a rigid phallus ten miles away and wonder, How on earth did he spot me from there?”   The protagonist bemoans the fact that he is at the mercy of his bodily functions. 

Lovett’s character has been described as the “curiously likeable loser”.  It is quite a challenge finding a single redeeming quality within this loathsome self-absorbed character.

Pity? Perhaps. But not too much of it, as it is difficult to feel pity for a character that treats women as if they have been imported from a flesh factory in Oblivion.  Perhaps Beckett said it best when he commented, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness”.  I may be squeamish, but I find mental and physical abuse unsavory. Through black humour and un-censored thoughts, Beckett uses precisely this aversion and natural fear to make us ponder the very nature of love and the complexities of mankind.  When you laugh at his profanities and abuse, it is a dry, guilty laugh.  For a split second you get to experience a glimpse of profound self-loathing.  

It is only when the characters bemoans; “What goes by the name of love is banishment, with now and then a postcard from the homeland…” that one begins to suspect the character is guilty of self-imposed flagellation.  Is he punishing his unruly erection, or himself, for his cruelty to the prostitute? Or is he punishing himself (his father) for the act of being born?  It is the birth of the prostitute’s child – and his – that finally sets him off and he flees from his newfound home crying what a waste it is to leave one’s home without a forceful eviction.  He spends the rest of his days with the prostitute’s phantom screams ringing in his ears.   This makes for provocative theatre and is proof of Beckett’s worthiness of the Nobel Prize for literature. 

Under the veteran direction of Judy Hegarty, whose directing credits include, Waiting for Godot, Rockaby, and The Unnamable, Conor Lovett unleashes the full magnitude of Beckett’s magnificent prose. First Love is presented by one of Ireland’s foremost theatre companies, Gare St Lazare Players, who has earned a reputation for accessible and faithful Beckett renditions.

The one-hander is on at the Baxter Theatre until 4 July, before heading off to the National Arts Festival, Grahamstown.


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