Brook maintains that Beckett, despite his merciless stare into the Abyss, is a laugh-a-minute guy. Yet these comic treatments of the futility of existence are alternated with a bleakly poetic pair of palate cleansers performed by the numbly expressive Hayley Carmichael: the 1980 Rockaby, in a low-tech staging that departs from Beckett's explicit directions, and the short poem Neither, which packs a world's worth of dichotomy and yearning into 87 words. As written, Rockaby superimposes a voiceover text on the stage picture of a woman in a rocking chair that appears to rock itself, piloting her — after a life of "going to and fro" — toward the inevitable. In Beckett's vision, she is dressed to the nines in "her best black," specifically an evening gown. Here Carmichael, frumpily attired in black and gray, is both the Woman and the Voice. Her speaking of herself in the third person renders the spare text even more devastating. And she does not sit until near the end, having metaphorically descended "the steep stair" to row herself, by rocker, across the River Styx.
It would be gratifying to report that The Grand Inquisitor was shaped with the same precision. And at its initial performance, the opening gambit offered every indication that the monologue drawn from Dostoevsky's parable positing Christ's unwelcome return in the midst of the Spanish Inquisition would be. Entering the minimally festooned Paramount Black Box, with its tiny stage and impressively rutted long brick wall, I was reminded of the title of Brook's seminal theater manifesto, the 1968 The Empty Space. But Myers, who contributes both the scrofulousness of Krapp and the crazed dexterity of Keaton to the Beckett, did not know his lines — a serious impediment in a work whose pull is between the silken cadence of its delivery and what is being alleged about beastly Mankind.
Fragments co-director Estienne is the adapter of the parable told by Ivan to Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov. Here it takes the form of a monologue in which the elderly Cardinal Grand Duke Inquisitor explains to a silent, imprisoned Jesus (who gets the last, unspoken word) why he intends to burn him as a terrorist. The tall, angular Myers enters in a long black cassock, sets the scene with a brief narration, then enquires with some perplexity why Jesus has come back "to disturb us." Man, he explains, is "terrified" by the free choice Jesus proffered; he must be cowed by the Church into a submission that leads to a childlike happiness built on lies.
The efficacy of the theater piece lies in the contrast between that message and the Inquisitor's highly rational and seemingly compassionate, almost unctuous delivery. Alas, once Myers (who has performed the work before) began to require frequent prompting, that quiet power was shattered. The actor ceased giving what had promised to be a hypnotic performance and began the arduous business of just getting through it. One can assume that Jesus forgave him. Ticket buyers might have wanted their money back.