John Tilbury plays Samuel Beckett
John Tilbury, Christina Jones, Eddie Prevost, Sebastian Lexer
MRCD62, matchless recordings, 2005


John Tilbury plays Samuel Beckett - Review by Brian Olewnick on

It’s bad enough that this 2005 release had escaped my notice until recently but, worse, I fail to find almost any reviews of it on-line at all. Perhaps the WIRE covered it (I wouldn’t know, having given up on the magazine some three years ago), but I’m surprised and distressed that this recording, apparently, isn’t more widely known because it’s damned excellent.

I’m anything but an expert with regard to Beckett readings; I know the writing reasonably well (though, among other things, these performances reminded me that I need to re-delve into them) and have heard a handful of audio interpretations over the years. There’s an example of “Cascando” available for download on Ubuweb, a 1979 performance with recitation by Joseph J. Casallini which, despite some fine trumpet contributions from Leslie Dalaba, exemplifies the sort of histrionics that seem to be the first resort of Beckett interpreters where a plunge into third-rate gibbering is the option requiring the least amount of thought. Not so with Tilbury.

Two performances here, “Cascando” and “Rough for Radio 1”. On the former, Tilbury is responsible for both the music and oral interpretation, with electronic enhancement by Sebastian Lexer. He begins breathlessly, an edge of impending panic in his voice yet still retaining the veneer of civilization, the reluctance to squarely face any real horror. Two “voices” overlap, one (the Opener) calmer, viewing the activity with a detached objectivity while the main voice pants and gasps, pleading to Woburn, a friend or maybe an imaginary character. Crucially, and differently from the Casallini rendition, the listener believes in Tilbury’s character creations as palpable, self-reflective persons. They seem reasonable in this context of mental degradation and irrationality. More, his pianistic interludes accent the dichotomies of the text, seamlessly migrating from the placidly serene to the agitatedly disturbed but never going for the easy mark. An interesting comparison, especially with regard to the character of the Opener, is Fredric Rzewski’s superb “De Profundis” where Oscar Wilde’s text is given a similar reading, with intriguingly similar evoked psychological aspects. Only the slightest rise in anxiety level toward the conclusion of the track indicates the likely trend of events subsequent to these particular words, the performance all the more moving and profoundly sad for this degree of reticence.

“Rough for Radio 1” is in two sections, the first a dialogue between Macgillycuddy and a visiting woman (here spoken by Christina Jones), a black comedy of impatience and frustration. The man is bothered by some source of incessant noise, presumably a radio, about which the woman displays unwanted curiosity. He reluctantly accedes to her prodding, annoyed at her inability to follow his precise directions vis a vis knob twirling (“To the right, madam!” is repeatedly enunciated by Tilbury, to admittedly droll effect), but teetering back and forth between aggravation and an unspoken desire for company. Musical contributions, mostly electronic and percussive in nature, are provided by Tilbury, Lexer and Eddie Prevost, again excellently and appropriately. “You like that, then?” she asks. “It has become a need”, he answers. As she departs and sarcastically tells him, “I’ll leave you…to your needs” he once again says, with a new meaning, “To the right, madam. That’s the house garbage!” The scene then switches rather drastically. While it’s the same Macgillycuddy on the telephone, the cool reserve of the first section has entirely evaporated and we hear him desperately seeking medical advice. He becomes increasingly frantic (“Most urgent! Most urgent!”), but that undercurrent of politeness and self-regard never quite disappears, providing exactly the right balance of tension between frenzy and image-consciousness that could easily disappear in a more baroque, over-the-top rendition. Not to make too flippant a comparison, but by virtue of a performance like this, one comes to recognize and appreciate the deeper levels in characters like John Cleese’s Basil Fawlty. The closing words, the bowing to the inevitable, “Tomorrow…noon.” are perhaps more pitiable than chilling, more a concession to the day-to-day dullness and drear of Macgillycuddy’s existence than anything else.

Two exquisite, disturbing performances, one singular release. Now, in addition to there being no one I’d rather hear interpret Cage or Feldman, I tentatively add Beckett to that august list.