Writer: Samuel Beckett
Director: Matt Aston
Samuel Beckett’s short story, First Love, can be heavy going and, to be honest, even in Chris Hannon’s skilful, spirited and subtle performance of the monologue, there are longueurs, but overall Park Bench Theatre (named for the venue) offers a joyous experience in York’s Rowntree Park.
As we emerge, slowly and, hopefully, safely, from Lockdown, it’s a matter of finding the right play in the right place for the right audience to create a genuine theatre experience – and Matt Aston of Engine House Theatre has judged it perfectly.
His own Lockdown exercise took him through Rowntree Park, benches and all, and he conceived the idea of writing a one-woman play based around a park bench in time of pandemic. Add in the Beckett story/monologue and a children’s entertainment and you have a season of three plays.
The Friends Garden in Rowntree Park comfortably accommodates a socially distanced audience of 70, amplified sound through headphones makes for an untroubled listening experience and, in little social bubbles on the grass, food hampers are even unpacked to give an illusion of an untroubled English summer.
When the earphones’ Irish pub piano gives way to a gaunt-looking chap in Beckettian bowler and long overcoat hesitantly opening the garden’s side gate and shuffling towards the bench that is the centre of the action, there is a palpable sense of expectation – and Chris Hannon holds the audience for the next hour and a bit, such diversions as a squirrel scurrying up the massive old tree behind the bench a delight rather than a distraction.
The basic story, as the man tells it, is bizarre, but simple. He took to sleeping on the park bench after being turned out of his room on his father’s death. There he is approached by a young woman who may be called Lulu and who, it later emerges, works as a prostitute. At first he resents having to speak to someone, but eventually he realises he is in love with her. He moves in with her, reluctantly has sex with her, but decides he has to leave just as she is giving birth to a child which he may or may not have fathered.
The interest lies in the alienated nature of the man. He resists and resents possessions and human contact. When his father dies, he is not interested in the money he receives in his will; he simply wants to keep his simple room and have his food delivered at the appropriate times, as before. When he gets a room in Lulu’s apartment, he insists on removing all the furniture, causing a roadblock in the corridor. He is graphic in his descriptions of graveyards and constipation. Paradoxically he is both precise and unclear. His view of the world is summed up when he says he doesn’t understand women – or men – or animals. All he understands is his pain.
Chris Hannon brings out the torment of the character, but avoids unremitting gloom. In Matt Aston’s sensibly uncomplicated production, he strikes troubled bird-like postures or slumps unmoving on the bench, but he also has bursts of frantic nervous energy: similarly with his speech, from thinking aloud inconsequentiality to word-tumbling lists reminiscent of Lucky in Waiting for Godot. He is determined to explain himself, but the character remains ultimately inexplicable – probably what Beckett wanted.
The Park Bench Theatre season runs until September 5th 2020