All But Gone, on stage in Toronto, is a “performance of beautifully executed despair”
Canadian Stage’s production of All But Gone intersperses four of Samuel Beckett’s short plays with pieces of contemporary vocal music sung by two opera singers. Since Beckett’s plays are very different from what most of us are used to seeing at the theatre, I recommend taking a look at his work before you decide whether to see this performance. Otherwise you might come away saying, “Well, that was different,” like a puzzled woman in the row behind me.
Personally, I enjoy absurdist theatre (in small doses), so I was delighted by All But Gone. There was something especially beautiful and desolate about the opening moments of the evening. The house lights came down and performers Shannon Mercer and Krisztina Szabó began to sing long, slow notes of opera into the silence. Spotlights flickered across the audience, everyone hushed, and a tall blue curtain drew quietly across the stage: it was the kind of small but weighty moment that Beckett might have appreciated.
Whenever I see Beckett performed, I’m always struck by how funny his plays are. Not funny like a sitcom, but funny like you recognize yourself in the man jumping desperately for a waterbottle just out of his reach. These plays are odd to summarize. The first one was about the man trying to get the waterbottle, while the second one depicted the extremely basic daily routine of two characters (getting dressed and so on). The third play reduced the performers to talking heads babbling a fragmented story, and the final play featured one silent man and one speaking man at a table. The songs were interspersed throughout; one song, one play, then another song.
These short plays summarize as though they were nothing at all, but they were boldly brought to life by the acting and staging. Actors Paul Fauteux and Jonathon Young gave superb performances throughout the evening; their physicality (emphasized because the first two plays did not have words) was crisp, masterfully controlled, and filled with character. It’s amazing how much fun it can be to watch a man put his pants on very slowly.
Stage manager Nancy Dryden and her team also deserve special mention. Most plays keep their inner workings hidden, but All But Gone does not. Characters interacted with objects that were pushed in from the wings, descending from the flies, or otherwise manipulated by an unseen, all-powerful force. My favourite was the long poking-stick that nudged the characters awake so they could start their day.
I was, however, surprised that there wasn’t more music. Since All But Gone is premised on the interaction of Beckett and opera, I was expecting more of an equal partnership between the two. As it was, Mercer and Szabó’s beautiful vocal performances were mostly used to set up the atmosphere of the plays, and they did so very effectively. My friend Pam said the interaction of plays and music reminded her of a chorus.
The best way I can describe All But Gone is to say that it was a performance of beautifully executed despair. Everything is fragmented; everything is falling away. “Nothing is left to tell,” comments one of the characters in the final play, and he may be right. But nobody can make us enjoy ‘nothing’ like Beckett.
- All But Gone is playing until November 6, 2016, at Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley St.)
- Shows run every day except Monday; see website for show times
- Tickets range from $39-$69 and are available online or by calling the box office at 416-368-3110
- Performances run 77 minutes without an intermission
Photo of Jonathon Young by Faisal Lutch