Conor Lovett has established himself as a leading stage exponent of Samuel Beckett's work. At Kilkenny Arts Festival, the France-based Cork man performs all three parts of Beckett's novel trilogy, directed by his wife, Judy Hegarty.
Conor Lovett remembers discovering Samuel Beckett as part of a seminal reading adventure when he was 17. He was in London, having recently returned from working in the Netherlands, and along with some friends - including the future director Judy Hegarty, whom he later married - he joined a library that let members borrow "seven or eight books at a time". As well as "the Kafka and the Herman Hesse, my friend suggested we'd better get some Beckett. I'd heard of him loosely. I thought: 'he's a fellow now I must read.' "
Lovett began with The Complete Dramatic Works. "But plays are, you know yourself, not that satisfying to read." He soon moved on to the fiction and bought a copy of the trilogy of Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable. Each was written in French in the early 1950s; together, they form his masterpiece.
Now, so many years later, having become an actor, he performs his rendition of the trilogy for the first time on Friday, at the Kilkenny Arts Festival, including the premiere of The Unnamable. He has already, through superbly drawn performances of Molloy and Malone Dies, established himself as one of the best of that elite group known as Beckett actors.
Does Lovett see himself as a Beckett interpreter? "I'm an actor." His first Beckett role was Hamm, in Endgame, in Cork as part of a theatre foundation course, "played in an English accent". Part of Lovett's success lies in his absolute understanding of the texts, "the one-liners, the gags, the stories", the colour, textures and contrasts.
"Molloy is more spirited, Malone is opinionated, resigned." The Unnamable, the most beautiful and fully tragic, is really facing the void, the great silence. "It's the most abstract. The narrator," he says, "is possibly the author of Molloy and Malone." With Hegarty, his director, he has explored and assessed, teased and questioned the narratives. The renditions are seamless. What emerges possesses a logic and clarity in the face of despairing absurdity that continually open up new possibilities and meanings.
Born in Dublin in October 1968, Lovett is a Cork man now based in France. As members of Gare St Lazare Players, he and Hegarty, who trained with Philippe Gaulier, are comfortable working within the company's text-based approach. While critical and artistic responses to the work of Beckett and James Joyce, his one-time mentor, have generated so much pretension, Lovett has brought a welcome honesty to the search for logic and clarity of meaning. The humour and blackness are there, as are the humanity and regret - "what I said was never enough and always too much," as Molloy puts it.
Lovett admits it is impossible as an actor not to react to the comic potential, but he also evokes the subtle mood shifts of Beckett's inspired nuances. Above all, the listener is granted precious insights into the work.
Images of him as the bare-headed Molloy and the hatted Malone - the first living or reliving his "enormous history", the second reviewing - remain vivid. As does Lovett's white, bony, ancient boy's face under lights, sympathetically bewildered and almost amused at the horror of "it", of life, of memory.
Another vital element of his relaxed delivery is the laconic Cork accent. With the two earlier parts, the work remains rooted in story - Molloy is particularly anecdotal - but The Unnamable is different. It brings the narrator to the edge of the void. "The one ignorant of himself and silent, ignorant of his silence and silent, who could not be and gave up trying."
Lovett is forthcoming, as likeable as one could wish and very funny, with a slow, understated, gentle manner. Sometimes it is difficult to know where Lovett ends and Beckett begins, and vice versa. Such is his honesty, he is wary of making pronouncements about Beckett. He dislikes the falseness of interviews and the post-mortem sensation of wondering: "did I really say that?" Ironically, in the course of an ordinary conversation, he and Hegarty make more sense of Beckett than do most academics intent on unravelling the texts.
In 1992, he moved to Paris and joined Gare St Lazare Players. By 19, he knew he wanted to be an actor, and performed as a non-student member with Dramat at University College Cork. His first role was the moon, in a production of Lorca's Blood Wedding, directed by John Crowley. Once Lovett began acting, there was nothing tentative about his commitment. Within his first two years he had appeared in 10 shows.
Asked about the notion of acting, Lovett laughs and says: "when I think of what I thought it meant . . . I thought acting was about putting on an English accent, that you were only acting if you spoke with one."
He did not go to university. Instead, he completed a two-year bilingual-secretarial course, part of which involved a year working in Paris. "I had some idea that I might want to be a journalist; I wanted to do something involved with writing. Anyhow, I thought the typing would be useful."
Lovett had been going to France since he was 12. In Paris he met Bob Meyers, the artistic director of Gare St Lazare Players. "I auditioned for him, doing a piece from Molloy," he laughs, before adding: "and I did it in a Dublin accent."
Meyers watched, then said: "Stand up straight. Do it in your own voice. Don't use your hands and be yourself." It was good advice. Lovett wanted to be trained, and attended École Jacques Lecoq for a year before dropping out, six weeks into the second year, through lack of money. He then worked "in circulation" for the International Herald Tribune, whose editorial offices are in the north-western suburb of Neuilly, all the while acting and improving his French.
He and Hegarty, who have two small children, are now based in Méricourt. On the Seine, about 90 minutes' drive from central Paris, the village is also the company's home. Although neither seems proprietorial about Beckett, both are aware that they have come to live in the country where the Irish writer spent most of his life. They have a sense of the way in which layers of culture overlap. "This is important to us," says Hegarty.
I am watching the couple rehearsing in a shed in the garden of a colleague. It is hot outside. Up some stone steps, in another part of the garden, other Gare St Lazare members are reworking scenes from the company's adaptation of So Much Water So Close To Home, the Raymond Carver story, which is also due to have its premiere in Kilkenny.
An actor not involved in the scenes under scrutiny is playing badminton with the artistic director's teenage son. Hegarty watches Lovett, his braces pulled tight over a white singlet, shaved head white and vulnerable, work through a passage from The Unnamable. Lovett stands, looks at us and takes a step.
"I have no opinion. They love each other, marry, in order to love each other better, more conveniently, he goes to the wars, he dies at the wars, she weeps, with emotion, at having loved him, at having lost him, yep, she marries again, in order to love again, more conveniently again, they love each other, you love as many times as necessary, as necessary in order to be happy, he comes back, the other comes back, he didn't die at the wars after all, she goes to the station, to meet him, he dies in the train, of emotion, at the thought of seeing her again, having her again, she weeps, weeps again with emotion again, at having lost him again, yep, she goes back to the house, he's dead, the other is dead, the mother-in-law takes him down, he hanged himself. With emotion, at the thought of losing her, she weeps, weeps louder, at having loved him, at having lost him, there's a story for you, that was to teach me the nature of emotion, that's called emotion, what emotion can do, given favourable conditions."
The shed is airless. Sounds from the badminton ebb and flow. Their son and a little girl play on a trampoline. Ever louder, though, are the cries of the Lovett's baby daughter. The au pair admits defeat and Hegarty, the most intense of directors, whose analytical powers are formidable, changes gear and takes over. Lovett remains in Beckett's world as the director soothes her baby. Peace is restored and work resumes.
Rehearsal with Lovett and Hegarty takes the form of a personal, cerebral discussion that is also undercut with practical direction. Lovett is reminded not to take a hair from his mouth in full view of the audience. He says it's a piece of rice from lunch. They continue.
Their patience is remarkable, as are their contrasting styles. Lovett appears deceptively relaxed. His delivery sustains a sense of memories being recalled, assessed, corrected: always striving for the most accurate version. This quality of double take dominates the trilogy.
On Monday night, back home in Cork, he seems well prepared. The trilogy will be performed over three hours. He has already performed Molloy and Malone Dies back to back. "There's so much in Beckett, I could happily work on the material for the rest of my life," says Hegarty. Lovett loves the work, "but I also want to do other things".
Is there a strain in working as well as living and raising children together? They feel not. It works well; they share a vision as well as everything else. Their dynamic is fascinating. Hegarty, whose intellectual energy and exactness are intimidating, sees Lovett's strength as an actor lying in his humour ("it's so like Beckett's"), his timing and his affinity with the words ("I suppose he just sounds like himself").
Lovett does not present himself as crusading for Beckett, but he is aware that his renditions of the texts have opened the books for many. "It's great when people come up to you afterwards, and say that they'd given up on the books, but now they're going back to have another go."
The Beckett Trilogy of Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable has its premiere at Kilkenny Castle on Friday at 6 p.m. and runs until Sunday (£12, bookings at 056-52175). From mid-September it will play at the Belltable Arts Centre (061-319866) in Limerick and the Civic Theatre (01-4627477) in Tallaght
© The Irish Times