SAMUEL BECKETT never goes out of season at the Gate Theater in Dublin. “When it comes to Beckett,” Michael Colgan, director of the Gate, likes to say, “I’m more a missionary than a producer.” His 1991 Beckett Festival at the Gate reeled in all 19 of Beckett’s works for the theater, from the 45-second “Breath” to the two-hour “Waiting for Godot.” An international sensation, the complete marathon played the Lincoln Center Festival in 1996.
Since Wednesday and until next Sunday, the Gate is back at the festival for three star-studded extra helpings of Beckett, not one a holdover from back then. Liam Neeson is seen in “Eh Joe,” a 30-minute piece that was written for television. Ralph Fiennes performs the 55-minute “First Love,” a macabre novella. And Barry McGovern tackles the 90-minute “I’ll Go On,” an abridgment of the novels “Molloy,” “Malone Dies” and “The Unnamable.”
A tradition of enacting Beckett narratives was established during his lifetime by Jack MacGowran, prime avatar of Beckett’s scrappy, scruffy misanthropes. MacGowran died of influenza in 1973 at the age of 54, but not before Mr. Colgan caught his one-man show, assembled from the prose and the plays with Beckett’s advice and approval.
“It was at Trinity College, Dublin, Beckett’s alma mater,” Mr. Colgan said recently from his office. “Beckett was regarded as something for highbrows. And I was laughing out loud.” Laughing with him was Mr. McGovern. “We had the humor,” Mr. Colgan said. “We didn’t have the reverence.”
In 1983, in his early 30s, he took over as director of the Gate. Barely in the door, he tried to interest Mr. McGovern in reviving MacGowran’s one-man show. When MacGowran’s widow balked at releasing the rights, Mr. Colgan appealed to Beckett. “I got a letter back in his spidery hand,” Mr. Colgan said, “saying that there remained the possibility of a choice of similar texts with a different title. I took that as an invitation.”
He assembled a production team that included the director Colm O Briain, who was told that the new piece would be scheduled as a late show and should be made substantial but accessible, with the focus on the humor. “It wasn’t meant for the initiated,” Mr. O Briain said. “We were saying to people from the beginning: ‘Sit back, relax and enjoy this.’ Not: ‘Put on your thinking cap, be your most introspective, and worry about it.’ ” The plan worked. Mr. McGovern has performed “I’ll Go On” over 200 times on four continents.
Transferring a television script to the stage may seem a simpler matter than morphing narrative into theater, but not in Beckett’s case. His English always implies a voice speaking in the melodious cadences of his native Dublin. Entrusting his texts to an Irish actor is as obvious a thing to do as handing sheet music to a musician. And once that step is taken, theatrical garnishes — costumes, lighting, props, movement — may be added to taste. But in “Eh Joe” the visuals are as precisely prescribed as the words.
The idea for the Gate production of “Eh Joe” originated with the Canadian film and stage director Atom Egoyan. The script calls for little more than one epic reaction shot, beginning in close-up and ending in extreme close-up, with exactly nine adjustments of the camera along the way. A man sits on his bed, silent, transfixed by the voice of a woman who harps on his guilty secrets.
In 1966 the BBC broadcast the canonical version of “Eh Joe” with MacGowran as Joe and Sian Phillips as the Voice. (That same year an American television version featured George Rose and Rosemary Harris.)
“Because of strict control by the Beckett estate,” Mr. Egoyan said, “it never had another life. But it contains some of Beckett’s most piercingly beautiful writing.”
Formally Mr. Egoyan was fascinated by the prospect of juxtaposing the theatrical image and a live cinematic image. By using a scrim and a camera, he thought he could preserve Beckett’s concept even as he added a theatrical reality.
At first the estate said no. What was conceived for television had to stay on television. “But look at all the plays for the stage that have transferred to TV,” Mr. Egoyan argued.
With Michael Gambon as Joe and Penelope Wilton on tape as the Voice, “Eh Joe” opened at the Gate in 2006, and was a triumph. Since then JoAnne Akalaitis has staged a freer version at the New York Theater Workshop with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Karen Kandel (live onstage as the Voice). At Lincoln Center Mr. Neeson steps in for the first time.
“First Love” is a newly homeless loser’s first-person account of a sordid liaison only Beckett could have concocted. Mr. Fiennes discovered it in a stack of Beckettiana Mr. Colgan gave him to read while he was on Broadway in Brian Friel’s “Faith Healer.” At some point Mr. Colgan started hearing passages of the story on his answering machine. From traffic noise in the background, Mr. Colgan realized that Mr. Fiennes was reciting by heart.
At Mr. Fiennes’s insistence Mr. Colgan agreed to direct him in it, on the understanding that he was “not a real stage director but an artistic director who only directs behind a pillar when no one is looking.”
Theatrically, Mr. Colgan said, his objective was to keep everything simple: “Put the actor downstage center, looking at audience, feet firmly rooted to ground, no hieroglyphics, just telling you the story so you don’t lose a word.”