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14 March 1994: The perils of messing with Beckett

Published 23 April 2008

The considerable talents of Fiona Shaw and Deborah Warner are well suited to the idiosyncratic brilliance of Samuel Beckett’s work, but their collaboration on Footfalls, which opened on 14 March 1994 at the Garrick theatre, led to Warner being all but banned from directing Beckett again.

As many chastened student directors know, the Beckett estate is notoriously fastidious about ensuring that all productions of his plays remain faithful to his original script, and, most pertinently, his voluminous stage directions. The transgression made by Warner’s production seems relatively minor: Shaw moved around the stage while performing whereas the stage directions stipulate that the character was only allowed to move a specific number of paces from a fixed position. Several lines of dialogue were also changed from one character toanother.

The reaction to these deviations was excoriating, with the enraged the Beckett estate finding an ally in critic Michael Billington who compared it to “somebody doodling on a Rembrandt”. Speaking on behalf of the Beckett estate, and quoted in the New York Times, the playwright’s nephew Edward Beckett said: “I don't want to preserve the plays in aspic. I think that would be harmful to Sam and to the estate. We're not trying to produce cloned productions, but we insist they play the play as Sam wrote it.”

Warner defended her staging of the production, underlining her respect and admiration for Beckett while suggesting that the production was intended to “release” Beckett for a new generation.

Despite Warner’s protestations the production was pulled after just one week and its European tour was cancelled. In addition to this there were strong intimations from the Beckett estate that Warner would never again be allowed to direct Beckett’s work.

Talking to Time Out about the affair in 2007, Shaw said: “I felt terrible… I do plays in order to delight people. I so don’t want to upset them. We didn’t set out to destroy the play or to appear to know more about it than anyone else.”

Unlike most of Beckett’s plays, this story has a happy ending and in 2007, after a gap of 13 years, Warner and Shaw were once again allowed to collaborate on Beckett. Their staging of Happy Days at the National Theatre was approved by the Beckett estate while also, according to The Stage, “breath[ing] new life into what is so often a reverentially played but desperately dull classic”.

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