"Worstward Ho is not about something, it is rather about an audience arriving, sitting and witnessing a person, a man (?) in a space, a theatrical space, speaking/arguing his way through an existential dilemma." Theatre veteran and performer in Worstward Ho, Robert Meldrum discusses his approach to one of Samuel Beckett's least known and rarely performed works. Q: Without giving away any spoilers, what can you tell us about Worstword Ho?
A: There are no spoilers. The whole event is a spoiler. A ‘worsening’ of language. Beckett presents us with a person (?) positing the arrival in future time of a moment when they are no longer able to continue (to survive?) He then, through the sixty-minute passage of the show, has that person speak themselves, out loud, through all the mental and emotional wrestling precipitated by that challenge, alternately exhorting themselves onward,
‘On. Stare on. Say on. Be on. Somehow on’
alternately pleading for delay:
‘Save for some after nowhow somehow worser on’
before finally reaching a conclusion:
In the process there-of he speaks into life three entities: an old man and child, an old woman, and a staring eye - first as the observing eyes of a crouched person and then finally as a single black hole in a skull.
He proceeds by trial and error
‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’
to diminish / worsen them as he simultaneously attempts the impossible task of vanishing language itself.
‘What when words gone?’
Hence, it’s not about something, it is rather about an audience arriving, sitting and witnessing a person, a man (?) in a space, a theatrical space, speaking/arguing his way through an existential dilemma. The closest theatrical parallel would probably be Hamlet who in multiple monologues throughout that play argues aloud with himself; contending the ‘slings and arrows’ of his revenge project; instance ‘To be or not to be.’
That takes about 5 minutes to speak; multiply it’s length by 6 and you have Worstwood Ho.
‘On. Say on. Be said on.’
Q: Of all of Samuel Beckett’s works, what drew you to this one?
A: I suppose because it’s not a play. It’s a prose work. It has virtually no theatrical production precedents, no characters, no narrative, no dialogue – just words on a page, sans directions – but needing to be spoken and embodied spatially in order to spring into life.
Which dovetails precisely with how my director Richard Murphet so expertly conceptualises and auteurs a theatrical venture; utilising its prime elements - time (real time) and space (three dimensional space) and the actual physical presence of an actor – to powerfully and elegantly sculpt a visual/aural event. Elements, incidentally, unavailable to film and television, and why perhaps, in my actor role at least, I prefer theatre.
Q: How is it working with a poetic text in this way? How did it impact the rehearsal and development process?
A: It’s enormously freeing and simultaneously empowering. As with Shakespeare, whose natural heir, oddly enough, I think he is, he writes his ‘prose’ in flowing iambics:
‘Stooped in loving memory as some old gravestones stoop’
and occasionally in an actual line of perfect iambic pentameter:
‘The child hand raised to reach the holding hand’
allowing one effortlessly and fluently to vocally formulate and release meaning.
As well he has a Shakespearean ear for how alliteration and repetition can amplify and explode meaning:
‘No knowing how know only know out of. Into only.’
It cries out to be spoken, savoured and experienced in every note of its sounding, triggering therewith, deep emotional resonances.
Q: What fascinates you most about your role in this work?
A: What fascinates me is that it’s not a role – nothing on the page suggests how I should speak the words – one perhaps is finally unknowing of whom is even speaking them. A ‘him’, a ‘one’ or an ‘it’? That’s been its enormous, sometimes terrifying challenge.
‘Whose words? Ask in vain.’
Q: How does this play resonate with a modern audience?
A: Well that remains to be seen or heard. But at every moment what they are hearing and seeing, the self-recrimination of ‘move on’, the despair of ‘no future in this’, the frustration of ‘a pox on bad,’ the yearning in ‘longing that all go’, the shoulder shrug of ‘say the night is young alas and take heart’ - all at various crises moaned, or howled or laughed off by the speaker, ALL are recognisable and familiar to us as vocal eruptions - excited, demented - of our own mental exertions, emotional conflicts, triumphs and failures as we separately negotiate our unique paths through life.
It has been said of Beckett that he is ‘Perhaps the most contemporary of 21st century poets.’
Q: If you could capture the essence of Worstword Ho with a song or a piece of music, what would it be?
A: Perhaps Phillip Glass’s ‘Etude no 2 - for Harp or maybe else, allow me to cheat, in the words of another writer, of Albert Camus:
‘We gasp for air among people who believe they are absolutely right, whether it be in their machines or their ideas. And for all who cannot live without dialogue and the friendship of other human beings, this silence is the end of the world.’
Q: What kind of conversations do you hope a work like Worstword Ho will ignite amongst theatregoers?
A: All of the above ilk and hopefully many, many more.
WORSTWARD HO by Samuel Beckett 24 May - 3 June | Explosives Factory BOOK TICKETS