Samuel Beckett: Centenary Shadows by John Minihan
(London: Robert Hale, 2006)
Paperback ISBN-10: 0-7090-7913-3 £17.99
Hardback ISBN-13: 978-0-7090-7913-2 €24.99
That Beckett was well served by the photographers he cultivated is clear not only from the excellent exhibition of the work of John Haynes organized earlier this year by Reading University and recorded in the book, Images of Beckett, but also in this more eclectic volume which celebrates the work of Irish photographer, John Minihan.
This compilation of Beckett-related black-and-white and colour photographs by Minihan is framed by a number of short written pieces, either reminiscences or biographical information about the writer. Following an interesting introduction by the author in which he explains how he developed a relationship as a photographer with a reticent Beckett, a written piece by John Oliver Wallace encapsulates Beckett’s early life.
This is accompanied by a short series of photos of «Beckett’s Dublin», which serves more as a sample than as a treatment of the theme. It is followed by a memoir by actress Billie Whitelaw of working with Beckett on plays such as the premiere of Not I, which is intriguing on account of the intimacy of her theatrical relationship with the writer and the latter’s unorthodox directorial approach as shown in comments on such matters as the importance of «not acting».
Some of the famous Beckett photos are here such as the one of him viewed from behind, satchel on back, walking up the street in Hammersmith after a rehearsal at the Riverside Theatre in 1984. There is a particularly strong sequence of pictures of Beckett in performance which ranges from student productions in Cork to readings by Dame Peggy Ashcroft and Harold Pinter. Here the diversity of photos of Godot tells its own story about how this play responds to a variety of approaches and features actors such as the late Donal McCann, not normally seen in a Beckett context. If ever the shibboleth of «gloomy Beckett» needs to be dispelled, the terrific photo of Felicity Kendall as a flirtatious Winnie in Happy Days does it at a stroke.
An intriguing section on «Beckett in Paris» follows, with photos of Beckett’s favourite restaurants and one of his library, where his copies of Ellmann’s Joyce biography and of Patrick Kavanagh’s Complete Poems can be clearly discerned. The centre piece of this section is Minihan’s photo of Beckett in 1985 in the cafe of the PLM Hotel in Paris, coffee cups and cigarettes on the table before him, sad wisdom replete in his eyes. The book ends with a short concluding piece by Desmond O’Grady, mainly about meeting Beckett in 1954, plus a miscellany of photos of Beckett memorabilia and various reflections on the subject.
Minihan’s photographs of Beckett’s 1980s productions in London at the Riverside in Hammersmith neatly complement Haynes’ book which captures the essence of Beckett’s work at the Royal Court Theatre in the 70s. My one caveat is that the structure of the book could have been usefully clarified at the outset by a contents page; this reservation, however, is a small matter in a handsomely produced book in which Minihan’s photographs are consistently striking. His portraits are excellent and even his work which is not related to the stage has a strong dramatic quality. The book provides an ideal way of dipping into Beckett and would make a good present for anyone interested in modern theatre; for the devotee it earns its place on the shelf as a tribute to John Minihan’s photographic talent and commitment to defining the elusive world of Beckett.