Face the music

The evening started out going with Sophie to see Eh, Joe, the Samuel Beckett play. Liam Neeson plays the lead, but he has no dialog. Instead, Beckett has his hero do nothing but emote. You see a face without a voice, and you watch this man’s reactions as the disembodied voice of a woman, apparently a disgruntled ex-girlfriend, slowly and methodically proceeds to psychologically tear him to pieces.

Very Beckett.

The experience grabs you on two levels. On one level you are aware of the woman’s voice tearing away at the soul of a guilt-ridden man. She is most likely an imagining within his head, a product of his own guilt at the terrible account from his past that she slowly recounts. But in the end it doesn’t really matter: The man’s guilty soul is efficiently laid bare by the unfolding narrative this woman tells. His past sins are gradually revealed, until he is left naked, defenseless.

But on another, more literal, level, what you are watching is, in fact, a man’s face, even as his soul is rendered asunder. And in this performance it is no ordinary face – it is the face of Liam Neeson. And so Beckett’s high concept experiment of theatre circles around and lands in the most primal of places – our response to the features, the musculature, the expressiveness, the complex interplay of emotion on a single human face. In a way it is like a song, in which Beckett’s measured words are the lyrics, and Neeson’s face the music.

Sophie and I were both thrilled by this performance, and we excitedly discussed it afterward. I found my mind wandering, drawn to the essential mystery of it. There was something strangely familiar at work here: A disembodied woman’s voice, speaking calmly, in measured tones – quite likely a voice within someone’s head – leading into the living hell of a man’s past.

When I got home, I found myself searching YouTube, looking for parallels. I quickly ended up at the 1967 performance of Bobbie Gentry singing her magnificent song Ode To Billie Joe.

Here was something similar: the female voice, speaking slowly and calmly, gradually outlining a series of tragic events. She never raises her voice, and you are never allowed to learn exactly what has happened, yet the cumulative result, the sense of a man destroyed by a guilty secret, is devastating.

Is it possible that Bobbie Gentry was the Beckett of her genre?

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