Waiting for Godot

ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts

Theatre Royal Haymarket Company
St James Theatre, Wgtn; Issac Theatre Royal, Chch | Until July 14

A pair of old mates on their last legs hang on to life. An old couple, Vladimir and Estragon (Roger Rees and Ian McKellen), look as ghastly as they feel, and do not spare each other. Sometimes they remember they do have a purpose of sorts—waiting for Godot. Well, the upbeat Didi does, and the down Gogo goes along with him, albeit reluctantly. Even as the invisible Godot seems to be messing them around, the tramps disport with each other. Theirs is the familiarity of having nothing to hide, nothing to lose. What they are really doing is fending off the futility of their own lives. The liveliness of their antics spells out its antithesis. And the two actors perform as though their lives depend on it.

The audience is confronted by a desolate place. It seems like a ruined theatre. Are we in the auditorium of this theatre along with the actors? Blocking our view is a tall, imposing brick wall. The lighting is bleak, both harsh and spectral. Indistinct machinic sounds give a sense of dread. Then over the rampart crawls Estragon, out of a ditch. He has been beaten again. Violence and the abuse of power hem the actors in from the beginning, nor are they immune to its attractions.

In this version of Waiting for Godot, directed by Sean Mathias, Godot does not seem to be a chimera. This production shows few traces of the nostalgia for, or revolt against, the consolations of Christianity, which are associated with the play. It wears its argument lightly. The somber back wall of the imposing edifice, the sounds, the barred window lurid with light when Godot’s messenger comes, suggests that Godot was indeed a powerful personage, and not the expired deity. The authority he represented seemed more like that of an apparatus, of the inscrutable officials of Kafka’s castle, and he was behind everything alright.

At one point Gogo calls out, under the glaring moon “Will night never come?” What he seems to want is release, but in existential fashion there is no escape. Nor does Didi get the Godot he is looking for. What they do get is the supersize Pozzo, and his sidekick Lucky (Matthew Kelly and Brendan O’Hea). Twice. Once in each act. Pozzo the landowner, Pozzo the fastidious and vulgar narcissist, Pozzo the caricature of the ruling class and of Empire, Pozzo the ringmaster. Lucky the beast of burden, Lucky the clown, Lucky the page boy, Lucky ironically, Lucky once. Another codependent pair. As you will. It all depends on how you look at them (as one of my students observed after the show).

The production does suggest the protagonists are out of work actors hanging around the scene of former glories (they know all the tricks too). That could make Pozzo a redundant impresario but I imagined Gogo’s mistake was right, and Pozzo was Godot in disguise, out for a promenade and a look see. Someone who can pretend anything, even being blind. Who knows nothing but theatricality. A giant devoid of substance but compelling nonetheless; so that our pair, and Gogo especially, were roped in to his sadistic sideshow. Lucky is commanded to perform and speaks only then, his six minute one liner alarming his audience, a vortex concentrating the fragmentary, reflective speech of the play into its antithesis, a rant. Automatic. Almost glossalalia.

What would my drama class of eleven and twelve year olds make of all this? I mean death isn’t on their menu and wouldn’t the rambling of two old tramps “surely bore them” someone said to me before hand? Well, this is also a simple story about friendship and Gogo does have genuine pathos; so some of the children felt for them in their predicament, disreputable though they were. (Gogo’s shiny and stained pair of strides said it all, especially in the back view.) The beauty of this production is that it realises the play on so many levels.

Beckett did call Godot a tragicomedy; this production balances the extremes and avoids morbidity. Perhaps at times the play is too entertaining. Never underestimate your audience I tell my class when they worry about whether we are catering for the audience or not. This audience of eleven and twelve year olds got a hold on Godot. So it isn’t it only about Web 2.0—making your own material and social networking—despite the beating drums of the marketers. Brendan O’Hea generously came and talked with the class about the play and offered his insights into Shakespeare and theatre. He wanted to know what theatre offered these youngsters. He was taken with what they remembered of the play, their fresh interpretations, and how they related it to their own performances. At times it got so boring that you had to watch was one observation. It was like reading a book said another.  Isn’t that the irony of our visually overloaded culture, where it’s hard to see for yourself? And then along comes Beckett.

And you could read between the lines. For two and a half hours the actors drew us further and further into their imaginary world where nothing human was out of place. Even the schoolboy “who farted” seemed funny issuing from the charged up McKellen—so impeccable was his lead up.

Paradoxically, the highly controlled text and direction actually allow the audience to take part, give them room to think; it’s the patterning and the repetition that does it. The aesthetic elements of the stage heighten the verbal and bring contrasts into play. The silence and stillness in the performances and the set is palpable. And then there are the unsparing pools of light and the dark gaps. As in TRWarsawa’s recent stunning production of the very different T.E.O.R.E.M.A.T, the space of the stage, and the physicality of the acting register relationship, and reach into the non verbal and the unknowable.

Even as swathes of the intelligentsia flock to the certainties of the Dawkins/Darwin show, I’m going for Beckett and the theatre of the absurd. Life, according to this spirited production, can’t be explained, and all we have is each other. The audience on opening night were entertained and provoked mightily, and no-one seemed like a computer made of meat*. I reckon many of us went off into the night feeling how improbable we were, and how lucky to be here.

*AI expert Marvin Minsky’s definition of humans.

By Samuel Beckett
Directed by Sean Mathias
Featuring: Ian McKellen, Roger Rees, Matthew Kelly, Brendan O’Hea.