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Howard Sherman: All hail Bill Irwin, a singular creature of the stage

Bill Irwin in On Beckett at the Irish Repertory Theatre, New York. Photo: Carol Rosegg
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Those who profoundly love theatre often speak of certain treasured performers as “true creatures of the stage”. While referring to people as creatures might not seem terribly complimentary, the reference is an effort to express the essential qualities of performers who don’t necessarily reach their true peak when only seen on film or video.

Perhaps it is their full head-to-toe characterisation, undercut by medium and close-up shots. Maybe it is the timbre or resonance of their voice, never reproduced electronically with quite the same fidelity as when felt in the same room. Maybe it is the scale of their performances, possibly a tad too much for the close range of the camera but ideally suited to a venue of 500 or 1,500 people.

This was among the many thoughts that flooded into my head last week as I saw Bill Irwin’s newest work for the theatre, On Beckett, now running Off-Broadway at the Irish Repertory Theatre. The 90-minute show is Irwin’s not-quite-solo consideration of the works of the great Irish playwright, who wrote of despair and longing, of trying, failing and trying again, of existential angst and rueful humour.

While it contains multiple excerpts from Beckett’s work, performed by Irwin, that’s perhaps a third of the show. The rest is devoted to Irwin’s thoughts about why he is both drawn to and daunted by Beckett, an actor’s considerations on how to grapple with the works of an enigmatic master. The show is never dry, never pedantic and never anything less than compelling.

In addition to referring to himself in his programme biography as an actor, director, and writer, Irwin adds the term clown. He is not being facetious, as he is best known to avid theatregoers for that last discipline, even though all the others are usually present in his self-created works.

UK audiences may know Irwin from his one West End show and only major UK appearance, playing George opposite Kathleen Turner in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, for which he won the Tony as Best Actor in a Play on Broadway. But the work that brought him, three decades ago, a vaunted MacArthur Foundation genius grant was clowning. He once performed with a company called the Pickle Family Circus.

I can happily name and recall Irwin’s shows without resorting to reference material: The Regard of Flight, Largely New York (originally Not Quite/New York), Fool Moon and Old Hats. Those are the best known, but he also created The Courtroom, The Happiness Lecture and Mr Fox: A Rumination, among others.

I’ve seen them all, some more than once. I have seen Irwin lecture on comedic technique several times, and once was privileged to moderate a platform with him in front of an audience of 300. I can truthfully say that there is probably no single performer who makes me smile simply by walking on a stage, even when he’s being serious (he turns on a dime, from wit to anguish, multiple times in On Beckett). The more I know about how he approaches his work only enhances my appreciation of it.

I am always delighted to see Irwin whether on the street, or post-show. I have followed him willingly for some 30 years, and nothing I could possibly write would be able to convey the unique alchemy of his talent, charm, skill and intelligence, even when he devotes them all to doing nothing more than repeatedly tripping over an imaginary impediment on the stage, or being pulled offstage by an unseen force.

In his best known self-created works, Irwin is typically silent, which makes On Beckett slightly anomalous, since he talks non-stop, in his own voice and in the voices of Beckett’s characters. But it’s not the same as if Teller (of Penn and Teller) suddenly started waxing rhapsodic over the history of magic, elbowing aside the garrulous Penn. Irwin has been heard before on stage, to great effect, not just in the aforementioned Virginia Woolf, but also on Broadway in Albee’s The Goat, as Didi in Waiting for Godot, opposite Nathan Lane, and in shows as diverse as Accidental Death of an Anarchist and The Iceman Cometh.

Off-Broadway he has been Lucky in Godot, in a cast that included Robin Williams and Steve Martin, and directed himself in the title role of Moliere’s Scapin. He has done film and television as well, including stints on CSI (as a serial killer), Law and Order: SVU (as a therapist) and Sesame Street (as Mr Noodle).

Yet, for all his acclaim, I always feel more people should have the opportunity to experience him in person; because even Irwin constantly reminds us that time is passing and he cannot continue to do some of the physical work that helped make his name. In the Beckett show, he refers to being in his dotage, and he makes comparable comments off stage, as if, like a Beckett character, he feels time and age creeping up on him – yet he remains fit and agile and is not yet 70 years old.

What Irwin continues to demonstrate in his work, and which is an essential lesson for all artists, is that as careers continue they must evolve, and as certain gifts may become harder to replicate in time, they can be supplanted, with equal success, by emphasising others.

There is no benefit to stasis, to waiting endlessly for that which may not come, but rather in questing towards the next achievement, the next text, the next mode of expression. Even though I laud his live performances, I regret missing the debut of the new short, silent film, The Unsilent Picture, in which he stars. It debuted earlier this month but can only be seen in what is promised as an annual event, accompanied by live music, in Sleepy Hollow, New York.

Even for those who haven’t been watching Bill Irwin for 34 years, the opportunity to begin remains, as he continues to evolve his interests, his performances, and his art with the same fluidity, intelligence, and humour that have been present throughout his career. It is never too late to join him on the journey, and to learn from a truly singular creature of the stage.

This week in US theatre

Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman opens this Sunday on Broadway. Paddy Considine and Laura Donnelly once again lead the cast of two dozen in the sprawling work, three quarters of whom are making their Broadway debuts. Sam Mendes directs, as he did in London.

Continuing Broadway’s recent Kenneth Lonergan festival, which included revivals of This Is Our Youth and Lobby Hero, The Waverly Gallery opens on Broadway on Thursday. Michael Cera, who appeared in both of the previous productions, cements his status as an interpreter of Lonergan’s words, alongside Joan Allen, David Cromer and Lucas Hedges, under the direction of Lila Neugebauer. But it is the fifth cast member who is perhaps most deserving of special mention: Elaine May, the noted writer, director, and improvisatory comic, making only her third Broadway appearance since her debut in 1960 in An Evening with Nichols and May.

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