Ohio Impromptu
(Beckett on Film Project)

2000, 12 minutes, B&W and color

Directed by Charles Sturridge

Reader: Jeremy Irons
Listener: Jeremy Irons

The following synopsis is taken from the Beckett on Film Homepage. For a deeper analysis, you may read Apmonia's Ohio Impromptu commentary.

Ohio Impromptu, written in 1980, opens with a figure clad in black with long white hair hiding his face and sitting on a white chair at a white table. There are two characters, the Reader and the Listener. The Reader, it emerges, is a mysterious messenger from someone now dead and once loved by the Listener. The book the Reader reads from tells the story of the Listener mourning right up until the last moment, when the story is told for the last time and "there is nothing left to tell." Throughout, the Listener not only listens but also regulates his companion's reading by knocking on the table with his hand in an attempt to ensure that this will not be the final telling of the tale.

In the text for Ohio Impromptu, Beckett calls for Reader and Listener to be "as alike in appearance as possible." Taking advantage of the possibilities of film, director Charles Sturridge has one-upped this stage direction, casting Jeremy Irons in both roles. Both the notion and the casting itself are wonderful, and Irons delivers a performance that one is tempted to call definitive -- not a term to be thrown around lightly in the enigmatic universe of Beckett characters. Interestingly, this is not the first time Jeremy Irons has played his own doppelgänger, and fans of David Cronenberg will be instantly reminded of Dead Ringers, one of the most criminally underrated films of the Eighties. Indeed, the allusion plays right into Sturridge's hands, as Reader and Listener can clearly be seen as a psychological echo of Elliot and Beverly Mantle, the film's disturbingly co-dependent identical twins.
As in Dead Ringers, Irons does a remarkable job at portraying dual natures without the need for makeup or gimmickry: you always know which is which, as if Irons has inhabited both roles from birth to present, experiencing every nuance of difference over the years and inscribing them into face, voice, posture, manner. His Listener is deeply tragic but never pathetic; lost in a barren desert of his own creation, his final, angry knock is a note struck with overtones of futile desperation and fateful resignation. His Reader is no less remarkable. Like someone trusted with the care of a terminally ill but occasionally demanding loved one, he balances tender pity with profound weariness, painfully restricted compassion with self-aware frustration. When Reader and Listener trade knowing looks, you completely forget this is the same actor.
Sturridge takes his cues from Beckett's monotone staging and shoots the majority of the piece in a richly contrasted black and white. The camera moves around the table, further enhancing the illusion of two figures and establishing a sense of confined space. At the point where Reader pauses his reading for clarification, Sturridge wisely allows us to view the book, and the effect of seeing the actual text of the play in stark typeface adds a vague frisson of self-reflexive dislocation impossible in the theater. The only place that Sturridge falters is the very end. As dawn breaks, the black and white film slowly changes to color, and Reader vanishes. The original stage text has Reader and Listener stare at each other "unblinking" and "expressionless" for ten seconds before the lights fade; trapping us in an unsettling moment that denies resolution. More than a mere cinematic flourish, having Reader disappear is a deliberately interpretive act, suggesting that the play we witnessed is not the final reading. Sturridge makes no mention of this in the DVD addenda, the printed materials, or his online interview, which leads one to wonder whether he intended to override Beckett's intentions, or perhaps simply failed to realize the multiple possibilities in the ending as written.
Setting aside this misstep, Sturridge's Ohio Impromptu is still one of the highlights of the Beckett on Film collection. His comments in the "Addenda" section are generally perceptive, and revolve around the open nature of Beckettian characters.

Ordering Information

Beckett on Film Project
Blue Angel Films, 2001, 4-DVD set; $149.95.

Additional Resources

Apmonia "Ohio Impromptu" Commentary -- The Quail's commentary on Ohio Impromptu, online here at Apmonia.

BoF "Ohio Impromptu" Page -- From the Beckett on Film homepage, this sections contains a synopsis, talent biographies, a video clip, and a brief interview with director Charles Sturridge. (The synopsis and banner image above are also from this site.)

Channel 4 "Ohio Impromptu" Page -- From the Channel 4 Learning site, this page contains some commentary on the play's structure, characters, and theme.

IMDB "Ohio Impromptu" Page -- The entry for Ohio Impromptu at the Internet Movie Database.

Dead Ringers -- Cronenberg's haunting film of identity and moral decay, also starring a twinned Jeremy Irons.

--Allen B. Ruch
20 April 2003

Email Apmonia -- Send email to Tim Conley and the Great Quail -- comments, suggestions, corrections, criticisms, submissions . . . all are welcome!

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