Play This Twice

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As a little gesture to honor the creative work and vision of Anthony Minghella, whose untimely death last week marks a real and serious loss to the British film industry, I wanted to refer you to my favourite piece in his director’s oeuvre: Play, his unforgettable film version of the stage play by Beckett. The whole thing can be seen on YouTube, posted in two parts and lasting just under 15 minutes (also posted below). Once you start Part 2, keep watching; the clip is not mislabeled, ‘though if you are new to this piece then you are excused for thinking so.

Created in 2001 for the ambitious “Beckett on Film” project, which introduced film versions of 19 of the playwright’s stage plays to DVD libraries (and young, worldly Beckett skeptics) everywhere, Play was familiar ground to the theatrically-inclined Minghella. He obsessed over Beckett at University and as a drama teacher, directed some of the plays (including Play) while a student, and consistently cited the playwright as a formative influence on his artistry. I’ve read very little of Minghella’s own writing for the stage, but surely Beckett’s creative concerns and efforts can be felt behind many of the qualities that make Minghella’s work special: his interest in the form and mechanisms of film, for instance, and his boldness in using any cinematic resource available to saturate a scene or frame in Mood.

Minghella’s Play is distinguished among the “Beckett on Film” contributions for having perhaps the most thoroughly thought-out idea for screen adaptation. As a finished work, it is both richly cinematic and admirably sensitive to the sources of the stage play’s theatrical power. In Play, three heads, two female and one male, protrude from identical urns and take turns jabbering, tonelessly and at tongue-masticating speeds, through the details of their collapsed love triangle. Famously, this action repeats in its entirety after playing through once. In the stage play, a single beating spotlight serves as prompter/conductor of the dialogue, provoking the heads to speech and then silencing them with blackouts. Minghella’s film intelligently transfers this role to the camera, which clicks, zooms and focus-pulls around the heads with a comparably unnerving indifference to the human discomfort it captures.

Of course, no filmic substitute is really possible for the way Play’s purgatorial situation entraps the audience along with the plainly suffering actors, who can neither fully stand nor sit (Beckett’s stage directions sternly inform directors that “the sitting position results in urns of unacceptable bulk and is not to be considered”). Thus Minghella chose to illustrate the implied post-death environment, setting the work in a mist-filled landscape dotted with hundreds of urns extending into endless distance, from which indistinguishable faces mutter and squeak like the Virgilian dead. The obtrusive camera-interrogator shoots the three actors in the foreground (Alan Rickman, Kristin Scott Thomas, and RSC treasure Juliet Stevenson) from various angles, frequently interrupted by burn-outs, fog, clapperboards, and more. The overall effect is edgy and awfully interesting: purgatory as interminable film shoot, humanity as dry-mouthed actors condemned to endless reiterations of a salacious yet trivial story about which they have long, long ceased to care.

At the same time, the sacrifices of adaptation are there and obvious to anyone who has seen the stage original. Realistic detail and special (cinematic) effects are undeniably the main event, rather than the desperate lines spat into the darkness (“Am I not perhaps a little unhinged already? [Hopefully.] Just a little?” [Pause.] I doubt it.”), and the awful, fundamental circumstances of rote repetition. As innumerable disappointing Shakespeare films can testify, even the most powerful language cannot hope to compete for interest with—in this case—the blue-gray clay caked artfully on the actors’ faces, or with the marvelously particularised background, which suggests the River Styx crossing Blake’s Garden of Love.

Nevertheless, the film shows a strong fidelity to Beckett’s directives (and to those of the infamously beady-eyed Beckett estate—no text changes, no cuts, no gender bending, check). And it does much more than this, for one sees that Minghella recognized the potential of film to address and deliver on some of Beckett’s dearest and most elusive hopes for his stage work. Beckett’s reputation as a rehearsal-room tyrant proceeds from his struggles to realize his pure, beyond-precise theatrical visions through the bodies of flesh-and-blood actors, and through a medium insurmountably subject to time and contingency. One wonders whether, equipped with the film apparatus and the luxury of retakes, Minghella’s Play finally attained and preserved the tone, the pacing, and the vocal quality that Beckett had in his head.

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