There are five survivors in a futuristic library. Bam is their supreme dictator, and has the others interrogated and tortured, believing them to have said where. What Bam means is unclear, but he distrusts all.
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.
'Rough for theatre 1' has a lovely conceit that justifies its transplanting from the stage to a filmed outdoor environment. Shot at an abandoned street corner by a dockyard, full of rubbish, rubble and decay; where a blind man plays the kind of atonal violin Sherlock Holmes might appreciate, a man approaches on a wheelchair, propelling it by means of a large pole. Because of the docklands setting, it looks like he is rowing his chair in a concrete sea, contrasting his physical immobility with the comings and goings of a dockyard, but also pointing to the theme of the play, and Beckett's work: the dry, waterless, barren, sterile, desert-like quality of life, and the human attempts to salvage something from it.
The play is another variation on 'Godot''s basic set-up: two destitute figures wrangle in a waste-land. Both spend their lives in darkness, one by being blind, the other kept immobile in his unlit house. there is a danger here that the very real difficulties of being disabled are being used to express 'universal' themes - that, for instance, B isn't really blind, but represents Man who will never truly find his bearings in an arbitrary, unstable, violent world.
But this is a film that constantly tries to humanise Beckett's abstract. The characters are mere letters, A and B, and the movement of the play is very precise in its patterning. in Walsh's films, the characters are literally fleshed out, with two of Ireland's most famous performers, David Kelly and Milo O'Shea, giving ripe 'theatrical' performances, creating rounded, recognisable characters.
The very concrete (excuse the pun) setting furthers this humanism, reflecting these specific characters' plights than something more 'universal'. Intriguingly - and this is rare in the Beckett on film project
sexuality is foregrounded, the drama of control and submission given a
sado-masochistic charge with the pole-whipping; the lost leg signalling impotence; the genuflecting before a dominant partner; the carressing of the face, etc. Thus, the abstract theme - man's need for companionship, and simultaneous, cancelling need for control - is grounded; the commonplace filming in monochrome concealing a struggling adventurousness.
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