Samuel Beckett’s radio play Embers has been glowing in the fireplace since its first BBC broadcast in 1959. Consisting of two monologues surrounding a dialogue, it seems to take place all inside the head of its central character, Henry. This has led commentators to term it a “skullscape,” and Pan Pan Theatre‘s daring stage production makes that metaphor literal, setting the “action” inside a monumental skull (sculpted by Andrew Clancy).
In a brief prelude, four figures wander about a set strewn with small rocks in which the skull sits momentarily covered in a cloth. The sound of the sea rises and falls from a multitude of small speakers suspended from cables all about. But once the speaking begins, there’s no more movement, and no bodies visible. Henry’s voice and later his wife Ada’s emanate from inside the skull where the pair (Andrew Bennett and Áine Ní Mhuirí) sit behind screens in the eye sockets, faces now lit, now in darkness.
Henry’s presumed-dead father visits him but says nothing. Then Ada visits him, sits down with him on the beach and engages him in a dialogue that seems to fade from the present to the past and back. Together they’re visited by memories of their young daughter Addie whom they have subjected to the terrors of a cruel music master and an equally harsh riding master, perhaps echoing Henry’s father’s harshness. Then Addie is gone, Ada is gone, and Henry is alone by the water again.
A storyteller of sorts, Henry may be a stand-in for Beckett himself, though Henry admits he “never finished anything.” He does tell us one story, a mysterious one of a man begging a visiting doctor for relief, but from what we aren’t sure. The scene feels critical, essential to understanding the character of Henry, but bears up under any number of interpretations.
Henry’s journey, his life, has no satisfactory conclusion, and the play ends as ambiguously as it began. Yet under the direction of Gavin Quinn and carried by Bennett’s resonant yet edgy delivery, Henry’s “story” grows fascinating and finally feels urgent. Though the narrative is loaded with details begging for symbolic interpretation, and critics have done just that ad infinitum over the decades, one doesn’t need to roll Embers around in one’s own skull for hours afterward to appreciate it, certainly not in this production, which should put to rest the debate encapsulated by Wikipedia’s bald statement that “Opinions vary as to whether the work succeeds.” Here, it does so, and a good deal more dramatically than one might have expected from a radio play transferred to the stage.
Essential to this no-movement drama, more so than in most stage productions, are the sound effects (Jimmy Eadie) and the astounding, agonizingly slow-moving lighting effects (Aedín Cosgrove) that transform the scene from night into morning, from despair to struggle, and the skull from sculpture to, at one point, a seemingly almost two-dimensional state, and from a more-or-less realistic simulacrum to a semi-abstract work of art. In a way, that describes the play as well – Henry seems like a real man who has led a real life, but in the monologues he shows it to us lifted out of realistic description or even reliable memory.
By contrast, the dialogue with Ada brings him momentarily to a homey place, with even a few laughs – but torn away soon enough by Addie’s screams. The trail of empty, inexplicable terror has wound into a new generation, from Henry to Addie and from Samuel Beckett to us.