Among those who write, Samuel Beckett’s watchwords have achieved the status of legend. ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ This neologism encapsulates so much of the writing process, where a better failure is the sublime height of achievement in an echo chamber of attempts that can feel like walking with ghosts.
The quote, from Beckett’s 1983 play Worstward Ho has achieved a cult status separate from the work. The work is an hour-long monologue in modernist fragments that holds the process of interiority up to the light and illuminates the thought processes of its character. If the result is not always intelligible, it is far from a failure. Instead it’s evidence of the elegance of the thinking self that exhorts us all to fail better.
It is a highly experimental play. It has no characters and no plot. It meditates philosophically in snippets of language, musically riffing on themes of the limitations of languages and the limitations of mortality, even as it resists definition.
This production of Worstward Ho is staged at Theatre Works’ warehouse venue provocatively titled the ‘Explosives Factory’. Yet nothing explodes except the inner life of the play’s protagonist, and it’s a firework that crackles and sparkles captivatingly for an hour before finally burning out.
To be captivated by a Beckett play, like the MTC production of Happy Days, which is also playing at the moment, is to be mesmerised by the power of language to evoke the whirlpool consciousness of being alone and being alive: at its worst, it’s a maelstrom, at its best, a tempest sun shower. In between, it’s worth dipping your toes in the water to see how the current works.
This production, by veteran director-actor duo Richard Murphet and Robert Meldrum, makes kaleidoscopic progressions of an internal monologue truly compelling, and Meldrum’s acting is accented by a clever lighting design and graphic design and video by Chelsea Neate. Matthew Connell’s production is evidence that Theatre Works and the Victorian Theatre Company have been producing classics for Melbourne stages at a high standard.
If there’s room for any interpreter of Beckett to fail better, there is also room for this gifted team of talented theatre-makers to fail much, much worse.
Worstward Ho by Samuel Beckett
Theatre Works, Melbourne
Director: Richard Murphet
Performer: Robert Meldrum
Worstward Ho will be performed until 3 June 2023.