Simply to read the text of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake out loud, with over-lapping voices taking charge of the marginalia and footnotes, is a four-person task. Victoria Miguel might well balk at having her text (which imagines composer John Cage and writer Samuel Beckett conversing over the game of chess described in Beckett's novel Murphy to a re-created soundtrack of Cage's 1968 composition Reunion) compared to the Irishman's modernist masterpiece, but there are undoubted parallels, not least in the interjections of Christine Cornell, as the mysterious Commentator on the action.
There is, to be fair, not a huge amount of that. This is a very wordy piece, with narrator Philip Kingscott having a particularly voluminous task (even if he is allowed the volume in hand). That he brings much facial animation to the task is one of the joys of the performance for which Miguel, who also directs, has assembled a very fine cast with Glasgow-based American Paul Birchard as Cage and Allan Scott-Douglas as Beckett. She also brings a deep understanding of the philosophy behind Cage's music-making and the friendships that sustained his creativity, so while there is something of the lecture/demonstration about the production, the players bring a real humanity to their performances as well.
Just as compelling is the soundtrack, which has made an entirely new piece of music from the chess- inspired process that created the multi-composer original, involving contemporary composers and Cage's own Chess Pieces, from 1943, and relayed in eight-speaker surround sound (as well as being available in an online version for future listening). Miguel and her company are working in an area not too distant from Stewart Laing's Untitled Projects although without the knowing theatricailty, far less camp. It is a rich seam to be mining and well worth exploration.
- Keith Bruce, Arts Editor
IN THE old Demonstration Room at Summerhall, two men sit opposite one another, with a chess board between them. Standing nearby are a young man and a young woman, in suit and cocktail dress; on the wall, there is a projected image of the chess board, changing as the game proceeds. The two players, so it seems, are the composer John Cage and the writer Samuel Beckett, caught in Paris some time in the mid-20th century; the chess game is the one played in Beckett’s novel Murphy between Murphy and a man called Endon, each move precisely replicated.
The core of Victoria Miguel’s 80-minute play, though, is not the chess game, or the intermittent conversation between the two players, or even the continuous accompanying music by Cage and three collaborators, created in response to a series of chess moves; but the narration delivered by the young man, which seeks to explain – often with immense complexity – the nexus of ideas about God, meaning and chance, random incidence and the act of creation, that brought together some of the great thinkers and artists of the age of modernism. And in Miguel’s own production – featuring two fine if underused performances from Paul Birchard as Cage and Alan Scott-Douglas as Beckett – Philip Kingscott delivers this narration in such a gabbling, self-effacing style that the material simply becomes impossible to absorb; or even, after a while, to hear, given the fierce competing demands for attention – narrative, dialogue, music – that take what is potentially a fascinating play about the impulse of modernism, and gradually reduce it, as Cage hints in his final line, to something of a theatrical car-crash.
- Joyce McMillan, Theatre Critic