Bill Irwin loves Samuel Beckett. Beckett's works dot his resume: multiple productions of Waiting for Godot here, a staged production of Texts for Nothing there. He doesn't claim to be an expert, but he may as well be, especially in the newly filmed version of his great stage show On Beckett.
On Beckett was first presented, to much acclaim, at the Irish Repertory Theatre in fall of 2018. Irwin has reworked it now for the Irish Rep's digital theater season, filmed live in its auditorium with traditional sets, costumes, lighting, and sound. A few changes have been made: the young actor who served as his scene-mate in the section on Waiting for Godot is no longer present, and there are numerous references to the pandemic shutdown and how it can relate to the despair that's prevalent throughout Beckett's canonical works. But On Beckett / In Screen is still the same show that charmed the industry two years ago, and a master class for all viewers.
The 80-minute piece takes the form of a show-and-tell. Irwin performs several passages from Beckett's works, ranging from the aforementioned Godot and Texts for Nothing to novels Watt and The Unnamable, and gives us his attendant commentary on each. He discusses their linguistic rhythms and challenges, their innate Irishness (or lack thereof), and the existential questions they present. The monologues have a tendency to be confusing, particularly for first-time listeners, but Irwin has us covered — he performs each one with traditional clowning techniques that help the uninitiated discover meaning hidden under the surface texture of intensely difficult language.
Irwin, who directs for the screen with expert sound designer M. Florian Stabb, has a great director of photography in Brian Petchers, who captures every facial twist and arched eyebrow (Michael Gottlieb's vaudevillian lighting helps, too). Physical comedy is extremely hard to get right on film, and they really don't miss a beat, especially when Irwin puts on oversize pants and clown shoes. You wish you were watching in person, but the delights still exist on your TV or computer screen.
As a layperson, I am most familiar with Beckett's best-known work, Waiting for Godot, as are most audiences. Irwin's section on this legendarily dizzying text, which forms the climax of the show, is particularly inspired. Whether discussing how the pronunciation of the unseen title character's name (is it "guh-DOH" or "GAH-doh"?) affects the quality of the actor's performance and the audience's perception of it, or explaining to us why Lucky's lengthy monologue isn't the gibberish we think it is, Irwin enlightens us with his professorial knowledge and delivers it in a genial, conversational way, so that we emerge feeling smarter for having been in his presence. What an invigorating feeling to have, the sort that we get only after seeing a great piece of theater.