WORSTWARD HO - Theatre Review

WHAT: Worstward Ho
WHEN: 24 May - 3 June 2023
WHERE: Theatre Works (Explosives Factory)
WRITTEN BY: Samuel Beckett
DIRECTED BY: Richard Murphet
PERFORMED BY: Roberet Meldrum

Rob Meldrum - photo by Chelsea Neate

Worst. Better. Not worst. Say better. Done better. Not worst. Say done better. Say on. Better on. Done better on. Nohow. Somehow. On. Done on. Worstward Ho done on. Theatre Works Explosives Factory. Go now. Go in. Go how. Nohow. Somehow. Go on.

The last text ever written by renowned playwright and novellist Samuel Beckett was the novella Worstward Ho. Under the auspices of the Victorian Theatre Company, Melbourne theatre legends, director Richard Murphet and actor Robert Meldrum have come together to turn this unique piece of writing to the stage as performance.

Samuel Beckett's writings are notorious for their dystopian outlook, lingual density, and philosophical interogation. He is considered a surrealist writer and has written some of the most seminal theatre pieces in history including Endgame, Waiting For Godot, Quad, and the recent MTC event, Happy Days.

Worstward Ho is not a play, it is prose. Some even call it poetry (in that modernist style which includes the concept of prose poetry). Given our contemporary love of spoken word it seems a natural fit to perform this text live, particularly when placed in the incredibly capable hands of a master such as Meldrum. The size of the task to make sensical this dense and yet linguistically sparse piece of writing cannot be overstated, and in the hands of lesser mortals all hope for the audience hearing and engaging with each nuance would be lost.

The writing itself is a man pondering existence, and his existence, as the light(s) dim and he stands before a void. Language has become as minimal and repetitive as his presence in the world. As he tells us over and over again, there is only on and sometimes up. Even back is gone as lights dim. They dim up and they dim gone, but you will notice as the text continues, they are never bright. The images are never clear.

I have read commentators claiming this text is a religious creation story, and also a parody of the novel Westward Ho. I hesitate over both of these ideas. The more credible idea is it is autobiographical, and also that is is a parody of/conversation with the three famous 'directional' plays of the Jacobean period - Westward Ho, Eastward Ho, and Northward Ho. Perhaps, it is not parody so much as completion of the compass.

The terms 'Westward Ho' and 'Eastward Ho' where the cries of the water taxis on the river Thames in the late 1500's as the city of London expanded and ideas of egalitarianism and capitalism exploded. The three plays, coming out of the Theatre Wars known as the Poetomachia, each took a point of the compass to show their social and philosophical standpoint. Westward Ho looked west and towards an expanding future. Eastward Ho was a reaction by other playwrights and looked back East and to older ways and perhaps scorning their new Scottish King. Northward Ho was a reaction again by the original playwrights and spiralled around the excesses of a modern London, an expanding metropolis going nowhere. Worstward Ho, perhaps, takes these wars to their final conclusion - the final direction of life, and the smallness and darkness of it and us all in the end.

As well, the three plays (especially Northward Ho), as they were each created, saw the dramatic reduction of theatregrams along the way - dramatic norms which drew from Commedia dell'Arte and which were basic building blocks for performance in their day. This may be referenced in Beckett's diminishment of standard language structure to it's most essential items. I also think the repetition follows some of the lingual patterns of Westward Ho and Northward Ho, as well as being a reaction against the more flowery language of Elizabethan English writing. As well, the reference to three lights can also be read in this context. His epideictic structure supports these ideas as well.

As much as I enjoyed the idea of Worstward Ho as performance, in some ways I was disappointed in the direction. I found the playing space to be far too big. Too much space. Too much theatre. Too much acting. At one point I felt I was watching a Shakespearean monologue, not a Beckett. there was nowhere near enough clenching.

Beckett's writing is alway claustrophobic and Worstward Ho is the culmination of that in both style and concept. In such a large playing space you need the lighting to close it in, but the lanterns available (mainly large fresnels) just can't do that job - even with barn doors - especially in soft focus. I will say I did enjoy the silhouette work though. This production would have 'shone' - pun intended - in a tiny space and if it can't be done with staging, it would have been better at a venue like La Mama. It needs that kind of physical restriction.

Having said that I had the best experience as I love a good challenge, and it takes skill at the level of Murphett and Meldrum to release the Beckett humour that so many theatre makers try so hard to find. Yes, Worstward Ho is bleak, but in bleakness there is much wry humour and absurdity and, when done well, will bring us laughter and sense of community. In Worstward Ho the question is asked - do we go gently into that good night? Perhaps we do, sadly. Just ask anyone experiencing dementia. Alongside is the whispered question about humanity as a whole...

There is a great sense of relief and relaxation which comes from being in the presence of true masters of the theatre arts and that trust is earned in this production of Worstward Ho whatever hesitations I have uttered so far. This performance releases Beckett into our hearts and minds freely and wholly. Be warned though, Worstward Ho is not for the feint hearted. You will need to bring all of your concentration and all of your faith to peer into this dim world Beckett created. Here is a phenomenon you may never see again in your lifetime so cherish it.

3.5 Stars