Without Words on the street

Bryan acts out his routine for Act Without Words II
Bryan acts out his routine for Act Without Words II. Photo: Hazel Coonagh

David Hennessy talks to Carlow actor Bryan Burroughs as he prepares to bring Act Without Words II to the Barbican as part of their international Beckett Season 

“The homeless community helped us,” says actor Bryan Burroughs of his wordless Beckett piece Act Without Words II. Bryan and co-star Raymond Keane have performed the piece around the world and performing out in the open has allowed for some unique insights. Act Without Words II is a short mime that sees two very different characters emerging from sleeping bags and going through their similar routines in very different ways before both returning to their bags. Performing it out in the open, Bryan and his company have moved audiences to consider the plight of the  homeless and it has deeply affected Bryan himself.

“They would just come and sit, watch us do it and send notes back to us: ‘No, no, he wouldn’t do that because…’ And they were able to justify why certain things are happening. My character, as written by Beckett, with Beckett text you do it to the letter, it says ‘he looks at his watch, he looks at his watch, he looks at his watch’. They were saying, ‘oh yeah, he’s waiting for the methadone clinic to open, that’s what he’s doing’. There’s a whole other level of insight being brought just by their experience of seeing it.

“We follow all the directions to the letter. With Beckett, there’s always a danger of it being very dry and very holy and too devout to Beckett. I find that with Beckett myself. You can sit there and go, ‘this feels very dead, it feels too holy like we’re in a church and it doesn’t feel like it’s alive and present and vital’ whereas Sarah Jane (Scaife, director) makes it very present and suddenly by being outside, mucked up and following those things, by not directly playing it for laughs, playing it for real, the audience go, ‘oh, my god, these poor men outside in this state’. Without us having to say anything, Raymond, because of his rhythm and pace, you see a heroin addict, and in my case, you see a man who’s got some kind of mental breakdown who’s struggling to maintain his appearance and his whole way of life while being in no condition to do that.”

Set in Dublin, taking it to other cities brings an added dimension: “It’s interesting, there’s a moment in Act Without Words II where my character pulls out a map and vigorously and in a state of great crisis, starts to look at this map to find out where they’re supposed to go. It’s interesting that it’s a Dublin map. Whenever we’ve done it in Ireland and you’ve got this guy looking at this Dublin map vigorously, it has a poignancy to it but when we’re somewhere else, if it’s London, New York or Tokyo, you pull out this Dublin map and it’s suddenly even more distressing because you’re going, ‘oh my God, this poor guy has a map of Dublin while trying to get around somewhere like London or one of these other cities’. It makes the characters really feel like immigrants, like they’ve come from somewhere else and they’re totally lost. It makes their plight more critical than it might be when they’re home.”

Performing Act Without Words II in the open, Bryan and the company have had audiences considering the plight of the homeless and those with mental conditions
Performing Act Without Words II in the open, Bryan and the company have had audiences considering the plight of the homeless and those with mental conditions. Photo: Hazel Coonagh

While performing outside can leave the actors exposed to the elements, it also allows for the design to make a strong comment about the world as Bryan remembers performing in a Dublin car park: “We were in what was essentially the car park, a horrifically run down place made to look beautiful and yet the way it was designed, on all sides of this car park were the beautifully designed, beautifully lit, beautifully maintained bank buildings. They looked so pristine, it looked so wealthy and perfect while Ireland was crumbling underneath.

“We rehearsed it outside a couple of times at Christchurch and there’s a bit where I have to carry Raymond and my character struggles greatly to carry him. There’s an element of truth in that, you’re carrying another man and whatever sense of strain you feel, just by emphasising that, it will feel more authentic. This man tried to help me. ‘Are ya okay? Can I help you there?’ And we let him help but also let him know, ‘it’s alright, we’re in the midst of a performance’ and he realised then that that was happening and then another time Sarah Jane had stepped back quite a bit to take photographs of us and a man roared at her that she should be ashamed of herself because he thought she was a tourist just taking a photograph of these homeless people with mental problems and drug problems.”

For the full interview, see the May 7 Irish World. 


Company SJ brings Rough for Theatre I and Act Without Words II (Fri 12 – Sat 20 Jun) to the unique exterior spaces of the Barbican directed by Sarah Jane Scaife – a double bill inspired by the people and city of Dublin Friday June 12- Saturday June 20 as part of the International Beckett Season that runs June 2- 21. For more information, go to www.barbican.org.uk.


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