Dance First: Gabriel Byrne takes Samuel Beckett to the wastelands and beyond in new Sky Cinema biopic

David Roy reviews the new biopic Dance First: A Life of Samuel Beckett in which Gabriel Byrne and Fionn O'Shea portray one of Ireland's greatest literary legends

Gabriel Byrne as Samuel Beckett
Gabriel Byrne as Samuel Beckett

Dance First: A Life of Samuel Beckett (TBC, 100mins) Drama. Starring: Gabriel Byrne, Fionn O'Shea, Sandrine Bonnaire, Maxine Peake, Bronagh Gallagher, Aidan Gillen, Robert Aramayo, Lisa Dwyer-Hogg, Gráinne Wood, Leonie Lojkine, Barry O'Connor

Director: James Marsh

"IT'S the place we all go to when life drives us there," explains Samuel Beckett (Gabriel Byrne) to long-time lover, BBC radio producer and journalist Barbara Bray (Maxine Peake) of 'the wasteland', the setting for his most famous play, Waiting For Godot.

While famously "nothing happens – twice" in Godot, thankfully Beckett's own life story is a tad more incident-packed. Directed by Oscar-winner James Marsh (Man on Wire) and shot largely in black and white, this entertaining biopic chronicles the eventful existence of the Nobel Prize-winning Irish literary genius via a series of imagined interactions with his future self.

These self-reflective vignettes occur within Beckett's own personal wasteland, an appropriately tragicomic psychological stock-take in which he converses with another, wiser version of himself, provoked by what should have been his greatest triumph.

Beckett's 1969 Nobel Prize for Literature win was infamously branded a "catastrophe" by the playwright and author's wife and greatest champion, Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil (Sandrine Bonnaire), whom the Irish Francophile met after fleeing his austere mother (Lisa Dwyer-Hogg) in Dublin to live in Paris during the late 1930s.

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Robert Aramayo and Fionn O'Shea in Dance First: A Life of Samuel Beckett
Robert Aramayo and Fionn O'Shea in Dance First: A Life of Samuel Beckett

During this period, the 20-something aspiring writer was completely in thrall to fellow Dubliner-en-Paris, James Joyce (Aidan Gillen). We see the young Beckett (Fionn O'Shea) wearing down the initially stand-offish Joyce to become a regular visitor at his home, though these conversations with his waning literary hero come at a price: Joyce's wife, Nora (Bronagh Gallagher), is determined to pair Beckett off with their mentally unstable daughter, Lucia (Gráinne Wood).

Having managed to dodge that betrothal – though the snub damaged his relationship with Joyce, and Lucia's subsequent committal to a mental institution would weigh on Beckett's conscience for years to come – he becomes friends with Suzanne (played in these scenes by Leonie Lojkine), who helps nurse Beckett back to health in the wake of a bizarre stabbing incident, the details of which read like something the absurdist Irishman might have written himself.

Aidan Gillen as James Joyce
Aidan Gillen as James Joyce

The couple join the French Resistance at the onset of the war, the instinctively anti-fascist Beckett finally prised away from Irish neutrality by his close friendship with the Jewish French writer Alfred 'Alfy' Péron (Robert Aramayo).

Forced to flee to the countryside as the occupying Nazis tighten their grip on the country – Alfy is not so lucky, sadly – a period of impoverished exile proves idyllic for the young couple, though only in retrospect for one half of the relationship: like any writer, Beckett's ego craves recognition.

As depicted in Dance First (its title inspired by Beckett's take on life, "dance first: think later", a sentiment he adapted for a line in Godot), Suzanne feels that critical acclaim and fame can only taint her husband's creativity. She asks him: "You are a genius and you know it perfectly well: so why do you need all these idiots to tell you that?"

Sandrine Bonnaire and Gabriel Byrne in Dance First: A Life of Samuel Beckett
Sandrine Bonnaire and Gabriel Byrne in Dance First: A Life of Samuel Beckett

The fact that this admonishment coincides with a work patently based upon Beckett's ongoing affair (1963's Play) means his wife's public humiliation is also a factor at that point, but her concerns are also based in a deep-seated knowledge of her partner's psychological foibles.

Suzanne advises: "You and I, Sam, we're not meant for victory – we won't survive it. We need the fight, so let us retreat from victory," echoing the dying words of Beckett's beloved father (Barry O'Connor): "Fight, fight, fight."

In reality, Beckett accepted his Nobel Prize but did not travel to Stockholm to collect it (a concession to Suzanne, perhaps): here writer Neil Forsyth uses artistic license to have our anti-hero marching onto the stage at the awards ceremony, where he then shocks the audience by eschewing an acceptance speech in favour of scaling a ladder into the gods, clambering into a passageway leading to the aforementioned wastelands where his journey of self-reflection begins.

It's fun to see Gabriel Byrne playing against himself in these scenes, which tease out the playwright's inner conflicts and highlight his feelings of guilt and shame over those he feels he has wronged, from his mother to Lucia, Alfy and the two women in his life – both of whom stayed with Beckett long after they became aware of each other's existence.

Gabriel Byrne as Samuel Beckett
Gabriel Byrne as Samuel Beckett

"I owe everything to you," he confesses to Suzanne during the decline of their twilight years, in another of Forsyth's invented scenes.

"And I owe everything to you," Suzanne replies – though her words seem much more heavily loaded thanks to Sandrine Bonnaire's considered delivery, her excellent performance adding shade and nuance to Suzanne's side of this complicated relationship.

Maxine Peake is also great here, exuding just the right amount of seductive mischievousness as 'the other woman' who turned Beckett's head while helping to bring his work to a wider, English-speaking audience.

Gabriel Byrne as Samuel Beckett
Gabriel Byrne as Samuel Beckett

As for the rest of the Irish contingent, Fionn O'Shea is superb as the young, existential angst-laden Beckett, his deadpan, world-weary manner an amusing contrast to the mania exuded by the Joyce women – Bronagh Gallagher is a bit of a scene-stealer as a bold, dumplings-doling, marriage-arranging matriarch. Meanwhile, Aidan Gillen makes the most of his every second as a James Joyce gleefully embracing his inevitable slide into more 'minor' work, who knows only too well the perils and pitfalls that lie in wait for Beckett.

The film is most compelling during the scenes from Beckett's formative years: coinciding with the sudden upheaval of the Second World War, they arguably merit a stand-alone feature, especially given his close relationship with James Joyce – yet the performances from Byrne, Peake and Bonnaire ensure that his latter days also include moments of richly rewarding human drama.

While Marsh and Forsyth could/should possibly have allowed a touch more of their subject's love of absurdism to inform their handsome biopic, Dance First is still a compelling and often fascinating account of this Irish literary legend's life and times.

Rating: 3/5

:: Dance First: A Life of Samuel Beckett is in cinemas from November 3 and will be available on Sky Cinema from December.