Beckett's back to haunt us
Written by Justin Fleming
Directed by Richard Wherrett
Belvoir Street Theatre, Sydney
From March 9
Review by Brendan Doyle
The danger of having a monumental dramatist like Samuel Beckett as a major character in your play is that he's bound to upstage anyone else.
Although Australian playwright Justin Fleming claims he didn't want to write about the Irish legend and his wife, only around them, Ronald Falk as Sam Beckett steals the show. This is a pity, because the play's premise is intriguing.
Burnt Piano is the story of a bookseller, Karen, who has come to Paris with her young son Jonah and elderly father on a bizarre mission. Obsessed with Beckett and his play Waiting For Godot, she has written him countless unanswered letters and is now making a desperate bid to get the great man to explain the meaning of her own tragic past.
Karen lost her son in a fire, while his brother hid inside a grand piano and survived. The play opens in a Paris hotel room with Karen arguing with her crotchety father Pete, delightfully played by Max Cullen, about the transcendent nature of Waiting For Godot. Pete has never read Beckett and doesn't want to.
We then meet Beckett, in the last year of his life, and his wife Suzanne, who while away the time with chess and playing the piano. One of the great joys of this production is the well-known pieces of Beethoven, Schubert and Chopin competently played on a grand piano by actors Ron Falk and Monica Maughan.
After endlessly rehearsing her long-desired meeting with Beckett, Karen finally sends her son Jonah to his apartment with a letter that tells the whole story of her loss and suffering.
But her ploy doesn't come off, and almost has tragic consequences for Jonah, who feels intense guilt over the death of his brother. The central question of the play, borrowed from Godot, revolves around the death of the son. Why was one saved and the other damned?
When Karen does finally meet Beckett (in a dream?), it's in a cemetery, and her question remains unanswered.
John Rayment's lighting design creates subtle and beautiful changes of mood within the airy, uncluttered white set that invites metaphysical speculation.
I found this an intriguing and ambitious play, but not entirely successful. Karen, overplayed by Elaine Hudson, just isn't as interesting as Beckett or even her laconic father. Some of the best moments are when Pete rants about the qualities of his own play as opposed to the supposed merits of Beckett's, or when Beckett tries to comfort the boy for the inexplicable loss of his brother.
It's good to see an Australian playwright grappling with larger themes.