A trio of the Irish playwright’s one-act plays is headed to MONA’s Mofo. Actor Pamela Rabe takes us inside these “ghost stories”.

The shabby silhouette of a barely visible female figure takes nine shuffling steps down a dimly lit corridor. Over and over again she paces up and down this gloomy stretch of floorboards while she speaks with her ‘mother’ – a sinister, disembodied voice. Why this woman, named May, is locked in this tortured loop is never explained; we can only guess if the voice she hears is real or just some auditory hallucination. And yet, this cryptic study of obsessive-compulsion seethes with existential intrigue and drama. This is the universe of Footfalls, by the indomitable Irish playwright and literary savant, Samuel Beckett.

One man’s visionary is another’s lunatic, and indeed Beckett’s dark genius was viewed by some during his lifetime as a journey too far into the avant-garde. Yet art that leaves one generation puzzled can sometimes find a resonance with the next, and Beckett, once seen as intellectually brazen, difficult to grasp or just downright twisted, is considered now to be one of the most significant writers of the past century. He has also been one of the single most performed playwrights in professional Australian theatre this year.

Pamela Rabe as May in Footfalls

Six separate productions of Beckett’s work have been presented by Australian companies in 2015, including a triptych of short plays – Footfalls (1975), Eh Joe (1965) and Krapp’s Last Tape (1958) – presented by the State Theatre Company of South Australia (STCSA). Directed by Georgie Brookman, Nescha Jelk and Corey McMahon respectively, this trio is due for a second outing in 2016 at Hobart’s Mofo – Mona’s Summer Festival of Music and Art.

But why is Beckett enjoying such a fruitful moment in Australia? Undoubtedly it’s partly due to the evolving tastes of modern society: Beckett’s stoic, sometimes dystopian vision of the world, pricked with his unique brand of sardonic humour, is no longer such an implausible concept in our age of religious fundamentalism and ecological decline. But the secret of this six-decade endurance is also rooted in Beckett’s ability to navigate the profound and elemental, exploring what it means to be a thinking, feeling being, as Helpmann Award-winning actor Pamela Rabe explains.

“His work is so much about life and death and those kinds of big questions that whenever we move into a slightly anxious state as human beings we look back to him, because he’s always searching for the same answers that we’re all looking for,” she observes as we discuss her account of May in Footfalls.

The three plays in the STCSA’s Triptych are narratively distant and span over 20 years of Beckett’s canon. Their combination on a single bill is a radical bit of programming, but structurally they share a clear synergy. Beckett’s body of work was never about providing neat, easily relatable characters in conventionally observed environments. His brilliance was the discovery that the most generous lens for examining the human condition wasn’t through the act of doing, but in the process of waiting itself. Each one of these three plays places a single character in a sort of insular hinterland; the limbo after something has occurred but before any resolution can be found. They also share the same format, with a solitary actor on stage who enters into a duet with a pre-recorded soundtrack of dialogue.

Peter Caroll in Krapp’s Last Tape

However, these short plays are more than mere exercises. Beckett’s work is deceptively candid, drawing on deeply personal sources before reassembling those experiences through the prism of his literary powers. Footfalls, for instance, is simultaneously a portrait of Beckett’s mother, who suffered from severe insomnia and would often slowly pace at night around their home, and a dissection of his own relationship with her.

There are of course moments of élan in these three strange worlds – Beckett’s knack for dark humour is another clue to his enduring popularity – but this is theatre that also probes the darkest recesses of the human experience, and consequently it demands more from its audience than a common or garden play. But Beckett’s methods are also a major test of an actor’s skills, as Rabe explains.“These three pieces have a sense of being haunted,” she shares. “In a sense it’s a ghost story, but they’re also perfect pieces of poetry on stage.”

Poetic they may be, but perhaps because Beckett understood how ahead of its time his writing was, his plays are notorious for their meticulously detailed stage directions that leave very little to chance. In Footfalls, for example, the pace of May’s steps is set by a metronome, the sound they should produce is specified, and the duration of each episode of pacing is prescribed as being “exactly nine seconds”. In Eh Joe, for which Rabe provides the pre-recorded voiceover, the action of Paul Blackwell’s entirely silent on-stage performance is carefully outlined through Beckett’s performance directions.

Paul Blackwell in Eh Joe

However far from being a straightjacket, Rabe believes that Beckett’s instructions offer a fascinating challenge for an actor. “In a way these restrictions are a metaphor for what it is to be human,” she says. “Even though it may be physically restrictive you can’t stop being a thinking, feeling person within that. It’s impossible for us to be an automaton, even though these instructions create challenges – if that’s not a metaphor for life, I don’t know what is!”

But there’s more to Beckett’s universe than just doom and gloom. “It makes me laugh! There’s mischief in there,” Rabe says. “Beckett is an Irishman, who knows that life involves both birth and death, and although May is grappling with these restrictions and limitations, and wrestling with some difficult memories, I still find it incredibly entertaining that this is the way he chooses to tell this story.”

It’s this conflict – the battle between intuition and instruction, and the contradiction of humour in Beckett’s sometimes bleak world – that Rabe finds particularly vital to delivering a truly authentic performance of these plays. “Despite all these parameters, he cannot control either what I think as an artist inhabiting that role or the audience’s experience of it. We must live within it.

Beckett Triptych by the State Theatre Company of South Australia will be performed at Hobart’s Theatre Royal for Mofo, 15-17 January 2016.