Hamm is blind and unable to stand; Clov, his servant, is unable to sit; Nagg and Nell are his father and mother, who are legless and live in dustbins. Together they live in a room with two windows, but there may be nothing at all outside.
Rupert, a ten year old boy, falls hopelessly in love for the first time. When it all goes terribly wrong, he wishes never to experience heartache again. Turning to a book of magic, he invokes a spell to shield him from emotion forever.
'Play' is one of Beckett's most delightful confections, a farce, a vision of hell, a discordant fugue, a logorrheic din: as much a parody of Sartre's 'Huis Clos' as Sunday supplement suburban entanglements.
Three heads - a man, wife, and mistress - look out from urns, and relate the story of the man's affair and the wife's reaction to it, in a rhythmic, overlapping gabble, repeated twice to convey the idea of eternity. These lives, brought to crisis point by a very physical interruption - adultery -are condemned to a disembodied, inhuman, mechanical repetition of a previous existence.
Here, Beckett's interest in memory is at its most alienated - recalling the past is not an act of retrieval, an attempt to piece fragments of a shattered identity as in, for example 'Krapp's Last Tape'. It is a punishment, devoid of poetry, oppressively banal. Worse, the reminiscences are prompted by an unseen lighting man, like a Gestapo interrogator, switching speedily between characters, creating the play's rhythm, forcing them into 'life'. Much as they might like to, they cannot hide, they are at this man's mercy.
You can imagine the effect in the theatre: not only is the mundanity of everyday life shown to be mechanical, barren, dead, with the urns and the repetition not a metaphor for hell or limbo, but for life; but the way these insignificant lives are interrogated, as by the Gestapo, or God, or their own conscience, or paralysed desires, or us, or SOMEBODY, forces us to admit that we don't live very well.
Minghella, unlike his 'Beckett on film' collaborators, eschews over-fidelity. He keeps Beckett's words, but is radically unfaithful (a compliment!) to the play, liberated from theatrical constraints. His bombardment of montage; his intrusive use of colour, sound, camera angles; his turning Beckett's lighting man into the camera, with its clicks and whirrs and zooms; all fundamentally destroy Beckett's theatrical space.
A condition where hell mirrors suburban life, where immobility , darkness, emptiness, inertia are the tenets, is given an incongruous energy, a visual excitement. Beckett's verbal and lighting rhythms are transformed into those of editing. Life in hell no longer seems that dull and repetitive; neither, by extension, do our own lives. The intrusive, oppressive interrogation of the light becomes the more distanced voyeurism of the camera - it is not this latter that breaks the space but the editing.
This is an excellent example of an artist freeing himself from constraints, undermining his text, while remaining superficially faithful. Surely the appropriate response to 'Play' is to play. A very brave adaptation.
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