Irish writer and Nobel Prize winner Samuel Beckett’s works can be difficult to get your head around. So, it is with Worstward Ho at Theatre Works, featuring a bravura showing by Rob Meldrum who plays a figure wrestling with the end of the world. Now true confession time. I sat there for an hour and had no idea what I was listening to, other than a succession of poetic contradictions. While the play was in English, much of the language was phrased in such a way that I found it all but incomprehensible.
My process of reviewing works – theatre, musical theatre, opera, ballet, exhibitions and film – is not to read anything about what I am about to critique. Rather, to judge it purely on what I see. Overall, I feel that has worked well for me … until now. Notwithstanding Meldrum’s impressive delivery style – the emotion and angst he shows – it was as if he was speaking in tongues because I had no context. It was only after seeing the play – an existential work – that I read up on it.
Without wishing to sound churlish, Worstward Ho is one of Beckett’s least known, rarely read and even more rarely presented works. I can understand why. That is not questioning the man’s genius, but accessibility to the material is an issue. This marks the Australian premiere of Beckett’s final major piece of writing. Worstward Ho is a vision of the world at the point of extinction. A lone man faces the challenges of how to proceed in the face of what seem impossible odds.
I will give you an insight into some of the language used in Beckett’s 1983 penultimate novella. “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” And, believe it or not, that makes more sense than most of the monologue. Try this on for size: “On. Stare on. Say on. Be on. Somehow on. Anyhow on. Till dim gone. At long last gone. All at long last gone.” Or this: “Gnawing to be gone. Less no good. Worse no good. Only one good. Gone. Gone for good. Till then gnaw on. All gnaw on. To be gone.” Beckett’s prose bends the mind and probes the mindset of our protagonist.
Given the world is on the precipice, I can understand the minimalist set – just chairs, a bench, a small desk and a desk lamp in a black space. Sometimes standing, at other times seated, Meldrum moves between the furniture and even moves the desk and chairs as he expresses himself.
While Worstward Ho* may be regarded as one of the supreme poetic texts of the 20th century, I dare say it will most appeal to Beckett devotees. I am presumptuous enough to suggest that I won’t be the only one that struggles with the text. Directed by Richard Murphet, it is playing at Theatre Works’ Explosives Factory until 3rd June, 2023.
* The title is a parody of Westward Ho!, an 1855 historical novel by British author Charles Kingsley.
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- The Culture (Theatre Works’ Explosives Factory) – theatre review
- Krapp’s Last Tape (fortyfivedownstairs) – theatre review
- Alphabet Soup (Theatre Works) – theatre review
Alex First is a Melbourne based journalist and communications specialist. He contributes to The Blurb on film and theatre.