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Eh Joe

Published 17 April 2008

This production of Samuel Beckett’s play, adapted from the original television play by director Atom Egoyan, is an eerie, bizarre event which certainly does not make for an average night out at the theatre, particularly as it is just 30 minutes long. Caroline Bishop went to the first night of Eh Joe at the Duke Of York’s to see Michael Gambon play Joe, a man with a lot on his mind…

Michael Gambon would make a great subject for a portrait. Every line, every fold of skin, every eyebrow hair on his expressive face is on show here, at the Duke of York’s. Projected on to a translucent screen which creates a barrier between the stage and the audience, Gambon’s face is 50 times life size, every movement, every flicker of an eye, visible to the audience.

It is, then, an extreme exercise in self-control and concentration that Gambon practises as he sits in silence on a bed on the stage, while his face comes under such scrutiny. At the beginning of this short play, before the projection appears, Gambon, as Joe, is seen checking all the windows and doors of his small, bare room. An old man, worried, fearful for his safety maybe, to the extent that he even shuts and locks his wardrobe door. This done, he sits on the bed, and his face looms over the audience.

Penelope Wilton plays the woman’s voice which then speaks eerily to Joe as he sits there. The voice of a former lover, perhaps, combined with the voice of his conscience – and Joe has a lot on his conscience.

For the duration of this half hour play the voice taunts Joe about the insalubrious goings on in his past life. Though he seems here a lonely, old, pitiful man, the voice reveals he is, or was, cruel and selfish, his treatment of women driving one former lover to commit suicide. Wilton’s voice describes in graphic detail the various methods the girl used to try to kill herself, before she finally succeeded. Throughout, Gambon’s face expresses the emotion that Joe is going through, or not, as he relives his past.

As the voice finally lets up and Gambon’s face recedes into darkness, are we any more clear about who this man is, what he has done and what he feels about it? Perhaps only Beckett really knows.

CB

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