Left - Ian McKellen. Cover - Ian McKellen and Roger Rees.
Where to begin? At the beginning? But this is the same as the end, or is it?
Waiting for Godot by Irish-born playwright Samuel Beckett is famously said to be the play in which nothing happens and yet it has become a classic of Western literature and has had an enormous influence on many of the playwrights who came after Beckett.
Samuel Beckett wrote En Attendant Godot in 1949 and it premiered at the Babylone in Paris on 5 January 1953. French playwright, Jean Anouilh, famously remarked that nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it is terrible, but ultimately concluded that the premiere was the most important put on in Paris for forty years. And so it proved to be. The first English performance was at the Arts Theatre in London on 3 August 1955.
Two tramps, Estragon and Vladimir, wait in a bleak deserted landscape for Godot. While they are waiting the two play word games, argue, question, remember, laugh at their inability to laugh (at their age it causes incontinence!), complain about the other and their ill-fitting boots, never really managing to connect and yet they stay together, waiting. Neither of them knows for sure why they are waiting, or what they are waiting for; Godot remains an enigma, open to interpretation – theirs and the audiences. They are the ultimate 'odd couple', held together by their shared past and their desire for something to happen; as Vladimir says towards the end of the play, habit is a great deadener. They continue to wait, till the end (of the play) and no doubt beyond.
However, despite this seeming inactivity, their world does not remain free of interruption. On two separate occasions, Pozzo and Lucky burst into their lives. These two characters are as enigmatic as the tramps, but with them they bring a violent energy, confronting in its intensity. Pozzo is the epitome of the colonial master; Lucky is his unfortunate, obedient and seemingly uncomplaining slave. Lucky is connected to Pozzo by a length of rope; Pozzo carries a whip. Lucky staggers under the weight of their bags, which he rarely puts down. He literally dances to his master's tune, doing for him whatever he is asked. But as with everything else in this play, nothing is quite what it seems or remains as it initially seems.
Melbourne is currently being treated to a wonderful production from the Theatre Royal Haymarket starring Ian McKellen as Estragon, Roger Rees as Vladimir, Matthew Kelly as Pozzo and Brendan O'Hea as Lucky. Perhaps the greatest surprise, for someone like myself who has studied the play and even saw a production at the Pram Factory in 1976, is how very funny the play is. My memory was of the horror instilled by the presence of Pozzo and Lucky with all the connotations of imperialism and slavery; the underlying humanity and humour of the play, and the music of the language, had been lost to my memory till it was brought alive by these fine performances.
The set is appropriately bleak – a crumbling castle, a dusting of snow, a single bare tree. The sound design is suitably sparing (silence is an important element in the performance) but wonderfully evocative – ominous music softened by the cooing of doves at the opening. And the performances? Well all were strong but one would have to applaud McKellen and Rees, they savoured every aspect of their characters. McKellen brought a wicked, playful humour to Estragon, a perfect counterpoint to the intellectual seriousness of Vladimir. Beckett's world may be a bleak one but the two tramps leave you thinking that if that's all there is, then we should just keep dancing and dance they do, the two tramps strutting their stuff to the tune of Underneath the Arches in true vaudevillian style. A nice up note that they have added to Beckett's script.
Whilst this style of play is very different from what audiences have become used to, relying as it does on language rather than action, its themes remain as relevant today as they ever were – memory, time, old age, nature, relationship, life, and the role of theatre. It's not often that you walk out of the theatre with so many ideas swarming round in your head and I loved the challenge and the stimulation of this. Waiting for Godot is demanding but ultimately very rewarding. It is a play about life in all its complexity.
If you have only read the play give yourself the pleasure of seeing it brought to life; it makes you realise that plays are not to be read, they are to be performed and the very best of them will live on in your mind and your memory long after the applause have died away.
Theatre Royal Haymarket Company presents
WAITING FOR GODOT
by Samuel Beckett
Directed by Sean Mathias
TOUR DETAILS 2010
Melbourne Comedy Theatre 06 May – 22 May (season extended) Ticketek 132 849
Perth His Majesty’s Theatre 28 May – 06 June (season extended) BOCS (08) 9484 1133
Adelaide Her Majesty’s Theatre 09 June – 12 June (season extended) BASS 131 246
Sydney Opera House from 15 June (season extended) SOH (02) 9250 7777