Theater Notebook: Bill Irwin talks about bringing his solo play ‘On Beckett’ to the Old Globe
Tony-winning actor’s stage piece is about his decades-long association with the late Irish playwright’s books and plays
For more than 50 years, two-time Tony-winning actor and master clown Bill Irwin has had a love — and occasionally hate — affair with the words of the late Irish author and playwright Samuel Beckett. He’ll explore his decades-long intimacy with the late writer’s work this month at the Old Globe.
The longtime New York actor discovered Beckett’s writing when he was in college at UC Los Angeles in the late 1960s. In 1987, he exchanged letters with Beckett just before he co-starred in the 1988 Broadway production of Beckett’s most famous play, “Waiting for Godot,” with co-stars Steve Martin and Robin Williams. And in the years since then, Irwin has performed in “Godot” several more times as well as many other productions of Beckett’s plays and writings.
Irwin wrote and starred in “On Beckett,” a solo play about his long relationship with the author’s words that premiered in 2018 off Broadway at Irish Repertory Theatre. He’ll bring it to the Old Globe July 14 through 17.
New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley described Irwin’s hilarious, thoughtful and shapeshifting performance in “On Beckett” as “pure, energizing joy.” The play earned the Lortel Award for Outstanding Alternative Theatrical Experience and Irwin received a 2018–19 Outer Critics Circle Award nomination for Outstanding Actor in a Play.
Old Globe artistic director Barry Edelstein describes Irwin as “an original: Actor, director, writer, thinker, and of course baggy-pants clown: there’s no one quite like him. He is also one of the world’s foremost interpreters of the work of Samuel Beckett, one of the titans of modern drama.”
Irwin’s 90-minute, highly physical play includes scenes from “Godot,” as well as readings from the books “Texts for Nothing,” “The Unnamable,” “Watt” and more. In a recent phone interview, Irwin described the play as being about his lifelong effort to fully understand Beckett’s enigmatic, tragicomic writing and also about Beckett’s innate “Irishness” and what that means.
Irwin said he’s thrilled to be getting back in front of live audiences again this summer with “On Beckett,” which after the Globe run will move on to engagements in San Francisco, Boston, Richmond, Va., and Savannah, Ga. Here are some excerpts from that conversation.
Q: Most theater fans know “Waiting for Godot,” but not a lot of Beckett’s other writing. How do you approach that knowledge gap?
A: This show includes the best known play of the 20th century, but also some of his most brilliant and important writing, which is really obscure even for literature. My guideline for the audience is we’re all entering this together. They don’t need to have read a word. Early in the evening I acknowledge that my knowledge of his work is pretty spotty. It’s deep, but incomplete. I really have a love-hate relationship with the writing. I’m drawn to it and pushed away from it. I literally can’t put the writing down sometimes, and I have to throw the book sometimes. He is a writer who was plumbing his own obsessions and his own compulsions and sometimes there’s a repetitive quality that drives me crazy. I don’t need to read any more of ‘The Unnamable’ and then there’s a passage that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Q: Clowns are the central characters in “Waiting for Godot” and also show up in other Beckett plays, but I’ve always found his writing to be filled with sadness and despair.
A: I’m so excited to be back out on stages, looking at an audience and talking about Beckett’s language and the clown traditions. People say Beckett’s natural for clowns. Often it is and often it ain’t. I’m looking at where Samuel Beckett’s language is natural clown territory and where it takes a different set of muscles. Then there’s the question of whether Samuel Beckett is a political writer. There are people who know the writing well who say he’s a deep writer but not political. I so disagree. Just to look at the question: Is this a political impulse or a comic impulse or a psychic existential impulse and then how good a gag is it? People who love comedy just love Beckett.
Q: You were born and raised in California. Are you excited to be coming back to Southern California this month?
A: I can’t wait to be back in the Pacific Ocean. The interesting thing about bringing my compulsion to the Pacific Rim is I grew up out there. When I get my ankles into the surf, there’s a part of me that comes alive and reconnects. It’s deep inside of me.
Bill Irwin will perform “On Beckett” at 8 p.m. July 14 and 15; 2 and 8 p.m. July 16; and 2 and 7 p.m. July 17. Tickets start at $30. Call (619) 234-5623 or visit theoldglobe.org.
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