Sat 31 May 2014
‘Mathematics is a haven – like language.’
So says mathematical neuroscientist Conor Houghton during his lightly-handled introductory lecture to the showing of Samuel Beckett’s ‘Quad’ in Project last night. In a talk that featured a motley crew of vegetables as tools for explaining the finer points of Pascal’s triangle, Houghton explored the general assumption that Beckett’s exactingly-prescribed 1981 television piece exhausts all the possible permutations of a square route trod by four hooded figures.
The upshot of the talk (I think) was that ‘Quad’ is imperfect in its treatment of the problem and that only by introducing a fifth figure and a new route (a regular pentagon in place of a quadrilateral) can we achieve the kind of symmetry Beckett supposedly aims at. ‘Supposedly’ because the assumption is that Beckett was aware of this imbalance (Houghton points to other mathematical fluffs in the author’s ‘Molloy’ and ‘Watt’ as evidence), but it’s this mathematical wonkiness that creates the allure of the work.
Reading about ‘Quad’, and even watching the video footage of the 1981 recording, is a dry experience. Four hooded figures navigate the sides and diagonals of a square, avoiding the centre at all costs, in a variety of sequences, for fifteen minutes. And witty and elegant as Houghton’s lecture is, it doesn’t exactly jangle the nerves - it’s all very cerebral. But when the four company members from Irish Modern Dance Theatre (IMDT) assume their positions and begin their 15 minute trudge, something happens.
Director Gavin Quinn (of Pan Pan Theatre Company) and choreographer John Scott (of IMDT) have tweaked Beckett’s original vision, without deviating from the original movement score, to completely shift the tone of the piece. In place of the long, hooded robes worn in the original, the four performers (Kevin Coquelard, Juan Urbana, Ryan O’Neill and Marcus Bellamy) wear jauntily coloured hoodies (in Beckett’s specified red, yellow, white, and blue). The whole performance is more street, more contemporary and less like the slightly slapstick absurdity of the Beckettian universe.
They’ve kept the hunched shoulders of Beckett’s direction too, and the synchronous steps. But these physicalities are transformed in each of the four dancers to become something idiosyncratic. Coquelard’s white is a hunched and surly teenager, hands disappearing inside the cuffs of his sleeves, while Bellamy’s yellow has more swagger.
Designer Aedín Cosgrove takes on the task of realising Beckett’s original lighting instructions, a staggered process of layering red, yellow, blue and white, which means each of the performers is lit by their own colour when left alone in the lulls between the expansions and contractions of the cast as dancers enter and exit. This adds a further textural element to the work that is absent in the original, creating interludes when lone performers inhabit a sadly blue or sickly yellow version of the set. Jimmy Eadie’s apt interpretation of Beckett’s sound instructions comes into play here too, the single instrument tied to each performer creating variation in atmosphere when heard in isolation.
But underpinning these additions and alterations is the niggly node of Beckett’s original idea, the mathematical ‘knot’ that Houghton describes in his lecture, represented by the averted collision at the centre of the square. There’s something startling in seeing the infallible logic of maths applied to the very fallible capacities of the individual. All talk of binary and triangles dissolves in the tension of watching the four performers approach each other in sync, heads down, swerving last minute on the beat to avoid collision.
This repeated moment of tension and its resolution is totally absent in the performance of ‘Quin’ (a John Scott/Gavin Quinn/Conor Houghton original) at the close of the evening, despite the introduction of motorcycle helmets and an electronic score. ‘Quad’ but with the addition of a fifth, the piece lacks something – it’s dry in the manner of a mathematical lecture, bearing out the claim that it’s the error in Quad’s make-up that makes it. 'Quin's' performers have no near-misses; their paths are clear and without hitches.
This staging by Pan Pan and IMDT is a worthy undertaking - it illustrates that in this case Beckett's text is empty, unless inhabited by consciousness. The author specified that ‘Quad’ was not to be performed live, but he may have erred here, and not intentionally.
'Quad' runs again tonight in Project at 6pm - get tickets here.