Play It Again, Sam: Samuel Beckett's Bleak, Absurd and Mischievous Vision Revolutionised Theatre, Inspiring Countless Other Artists. Anthony Minghella Recalls Filming One of His Plays While (Right) Leading Figures Pay Tribute
Minghella, Anthony, New Statesman (1996)
I was the worst kind of Beckett anorak. I began reading his plays and novels when I arrived at university. I was at my most porous and, for the next four or five years, my thinking, my aspirations, even my handwriting was somehow defined by Beckett. I became obsessed with his writing--its mixture of austerity and romance. He's like Bach for me. And if there are two artists who have provided a lifelong compass, it would be Beckett and Bach. Both are noted for their severity of line, their dry surface, but underneath there's a volcano, there's lava.
My unfinished doctoral thesis was on Beckett. Play was the first play I ever directed in the theatre, in a double bill with Happy Days. For several years, I read Beckett almost on a daily basis.
Ironically, when it came to make the film of Play, the way I worked with the actors was antithetical to everything I believe in when directing my own writing. The most pleasure from making drama comes from collaboration, from empowering the actors. But with Play, I found myself invading their process and trying to annihilate psychology, annihilate the organic creation of the moment. Play is not about psychology--it's a score in some way. And we're all hostage to it.
If you are making a film of Play, you have to find a cinematic correlative to the interrogative light, which the stage directions specify as prompting every speech; otherwise the only alternative is to lock off the camera and record a live performance. You can't have a light moving and a camera moving--one has to be still.
When I was teaching dramatic literature, I would sometimes say to students: look at the last page of Beckett's Play and the stage direction "Repeat play". There's no way you can experience that on the page; nobody's going to return to the first page and read again. In a novel the reader can fully experience the author's intention of reading, but with a play or with a screenplay, a core element of the dramatist's art comes from the manipulation of time and space. Time is experienced in a very specific and pungent way when you're sitting in front of a play which repeats itself. And obviously the Dantesque idea of Beckett's is that in purgatory we'll be forced to revisit the same trivial episodes of our lives again and again, in some kind of ironic rehearsing of life.
The interesting thing here is that the process of making a film mirrors Beckett's conceit for Play. Film employs repetition; actors repeat their lines and actions until they are correctly captured on film. Often the camera angle will change and the same sequence will be photographed from this new position, again requiring the actors to perform their lines and movements correctly before the next position. Essentially this is what the characters in Play are doing: they're saying things again and again, hoping they might be allowed to move on and, like actors, fearing that this might never happen.
My technique for shooting Play was not simply repeating the first iteration of the text, looping the same piece of edited film. The repeat comprises a different version of the same words, but with some recognisable and formal choreographies to allow the viewer to engage with the repetition, perceive it, experience it. The text remains exactly as it's written, but I was looking to get a layered quality to the film, not just pressing the rewind button. I was trying to find a film correlative to actors repeating the piece twice. In the theatre, a blackout can be used as a powerful form of punctuation, and this is what Beckett asks for, but you can't do that in film. Black in film means nothing. Instead, I tried to use run-outs, lead-ins, fogging, clapperboards and other methods for the filmic equivalent of punctuation. They are the same kind of distancing devices.
It's bleak, but what I think is healing in Beckett is laughter. …