First Love by Samuel Beckett
Arcola Theatre, London
Until December 13
★★★★ (Out of 5)
CONOR LOVETT, as the playbill for First Love is quick to point out, has performed 19 Beckett roles in 24 Beckett plays.
He is one of the world’s foremost Beckettian actors, which is the kind of phrase that means a great deal in some circles and almost nothing in others.
Regardless of what circle you belong to, what’s clear is this: Lovett has spent the majority of his adult life in the world Beckett has created for him. And he likes it there.
At just 80 minutes, First Love is a small story, but by no means neatly packaged. When the nameless narrator and star of First Love strides out on to the sparsely furnished stage (empty, but for two long benches upended and pointing upright) he has a few false starts, and agitated, announces that “I associate, rightly or wrongly, my marriage with the death of my father, in time.”
It’s a strong opener, and an accurate representation of the character we are about to spend the evening with.
Here is a person who is driven by a set of never-ending and chaotic associations, so entirely occupied by his own emotions that the physical world is an annoyance to him. He is furious when Lulu, the great love of his life, sits next to him.
He is disgusted by the human body, much preferring the company of the dead on his lunchtime jaunts to the cemetery.
Were he to exist today, our hero would in all likelihood be diagnosed with a severe form of Asperger’s syndrome. As it stands, he is living in Beckett’s 1946, and is doomed to wander the earth, frustrated and (he hopes) alone.
The material is sharp, complex and mean. It doesn’t want you to settle, and while it’s often darkly comic, doesn’t really want you to have a good time.
As an audience member you are perpetually anxious, a victim of the perverted tension Lovett continues to inflate, only to pop it with a joke moments later.
The real triumph is watching Lovett control the room, twitching when someone stirs, or zeroing in on an audience member with the madman’s offense you usually only find on a crowded night bus.
He keeps us on a tight leash throughout – so when he chooses to hold a three minute pause between one word and the next, we’re too terrified to even sip our drinks.
All this being the case, First Love is still brutal yet entertaining and a wonderful introduction to the disjointed melancholy of Beckett’s world.
Reviewed By Caroline O’Donoghue.
First Love is playing at the Arcola Theatre, Dalston until the 13th of December, Monday-Saturday. Tickets £12.