Review: Waiting for Godot

From Journal of Beckett Studies

Review of Gare St. Lazare Ireland’s Waiting for Godot, NYU Skirball Center, New York, 13–17 October 2015. Directed by Judy Hegarty Lovett, with Gary Lydon as Estragon, Conor Lovett as Vladimir, Marcus Lamb as Lucky, Dominic Moore as Pozzo, William Keppler-Robinson as Boy.

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Figure 1. Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot, NYU Skirball Center, New York; Photo Credit: Gare St. Lazare Ireland.

Godot is now in its seventh decade. Written in 1948, it was first performed in Paris in 1953, in London in 1955, and then in the US a year later. The play had a rocky reception – Lucky’s monologue brought down the curtain amid jeering in Paris, Britain’s Lord Chamberlain was stirred to list ‘12 passages for omission’, and the American producer actually closed the show in Miami, imperilling for a time its Broadway debut (Knowlson, 1996, 350–80). Since then, this simple yet confounding play has endured all manner of approaches, from those guided and at times directed by Beckett himself, to its capture as a darling vehicle for the avant-garde (see Kalb, 1989, 71–94), to its use as a celebrity vehicle, most recently, for Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. It has been presented as a political play in Eastern Europe and in post-Katrina New Orleans, and is now ‘festivalised’ in Ireland as an Irish cultural product fit for touring (see McMullan et al., 2014). Indeed, the two-act play in which ‘nothing happens, twice’ is now a globalised phenomenon, which begs the question: what is it to do Godot today? It was with this question in mind that I attended the short run of Waiting for Godot put on by Gare St. Lazare Ireland (GSLI) in New York City last fall.

GSLI is the small, independent theatre company founded by Conor Lovett and Judy Hegarty Lovett. There is no company anywhere as devoted to presenting the work of Beckett – in the last twenty years it has done seventeen of his works, first making a name doing monologues taken from Molloy and Malone Dies, before branching out into the radio plays and then into less well-charted territory. GSLI was the first to bring the prose pieces The End, The Calmative, Worstward Ho, Lessness, and Enough onto the stage. (Conor Lovett’s performance of The End, and an ensemble evening of music and Beckett texts, titled Here All Night, were part of GSLI’s New York tour, and took place at Lincoln Center.) With its history of breaking ground in conceiving Beckett’s prose for theatre, in many cases with no theatrical performance precedent to guide them, it is fascinating to ponder just how the Lovetts would approach a work with an abundance of performance precedent, including that established by the author himself.

At the 800-seat Skirball Theatre in Greenwich Village, GSLI presented its Godot in five performances. The audiences during the two shows I saw were different – the first mostly a student audience (plus German director Walter Asmus, I noticed, front and centre), and the second, the closing matinee, a more seasoned, if smaller, group. It made all the difference to the atmosphere, but the players proceeded unfazed. Indeed, the ‘choreography performed to the music of the text’, as James Knowlson described Beckett’s famous 1975 Berlin production (McMillan and Knowlson, 1993, xii), was expertly stepped – with Lovett as Vladimir, the Brendan Behanish Gary Lydon (indeed, Lydon appeared in Borstal Boy at the Gaiety, Dublin) as Estragon, the lanky, long-haired Marcus Lamb as Lucky, and the veteran TV actor, puppeteer and writer in Ireland, a portly Dominic Moore, as the imperious Pozzo. For ‘a boy’, a 10-year-old born in Greenwich Village, William Keppler-Robinson, was chosen, and an inspired choice he turned out to be.

The first thing that struck this viewer as the lights went down was the famous tree emerging in the gloaming. But this is no Giacometti tree: a trunk and few branches. This is a large spreading bough, entering from stage left and reaching down, at an angle. Although this tree is at variance with what came to be Beckett’s preferred tree, according to his Berlin notes (‘Two branches only & two leaves/3rd couple’; McMillan and Knowlson, 1993, 395), it is the tree of Caspar David Friedrich’s Two Men Contemplating the Moon, which Beckett saw in 1937. In his ‘German Diaries’, Beckett noted his ‘pleasant predilection for 2 tiny languid men [. . . ] in the little moon landscape’ (qtd. in Nixon, 2011, 142). Ah, yes, the moon. The moon will indeed rise in this production, and the actors will be silhouetted against it in the tableau that so moved Beckett in Dresden. The tree, by set designer Ferdia Murphy, is suggestive of not only branches but a system of roots, a visual confusion that support’s Vladimir’s general lament, ‘Why. . . nothing is certain when you’re about’ (Beckett, 1954, 9).

Under Judy Hegarty Lovett’s crisp direction, a subtle degree of uncertainty is evident in all the details. Estragon is not on his mound, as the stage direction in the Faber edition directs, and not on a stone, as Beckett devised in Berlin, but seated astride a small crater, with his miserable boots down in it. Since the crater itself is arguably a depression in one large rock – the oval disk that is the ground of the stage – Estragon is perhaps not only ‘of the stone’ but partially in it. Judy Lovett has pointed out (private correspondence) that despite Beckett’s insistence that his stage directions be followed, they are themselves wide open to interpretation. ‘“A country road”, I think, is the greatest of stage directions,’ she said. ‘It is so beautifully vague’.

Vladimir is on stage at the start, in ‘half-shadow’, another of Beckett’s Berlin alterations. The first (of twelve) ‘waiting moments’ (McMillan and Knowlson, 1993, xiii) that Beckett identified in his production occurs immediately and gives notice to the audience that this might be a night marked by silences rather than belly laughs. This will not be ‘little more than an up-market vehicle for Music Hall nostalgia’, as the late Seán Lawlor described the McKellen/Stewart production in London (Lawlor, 2010, 127). The movements of Vladimir and Estragon are precise and deliberate; their intersections executed tenderly, then coldly aborted. The two actors mark out their ground like surveyors, moving back and forth in chords and arcs, claiming this little blasted acre they fail to recognize. Silences continued to pour in (‘like water into a sinking ship’, as Beckett described it; McMillan and Knowlson, 1993, xiv), and the atmosphere grows chilly. After an alarming clatter in the wings, Lucky and Pozzo make their entrance, and then the obnoxious tones of Pozzo, trailing his whip, are heard: ‘On! Back! Be careful, he’s wicked’. Cruelty cannot warm the room, and does not, at first. But soon, in a clever move, Lucky, when ordered to adjust Pozzo’s stool a bit for his master’s comfort, merely lifts it a hair and places it right back where it was. Pozzo is none the wiser to this subversion of his will, but the audience is. And now, in Marcus Lamb’s Lucky we have more than a rooting interest. We have respect for how he manages his low station. Lamb, all arms and legs and long gray hair, delivers Lucky’s monologue with some pacing, in a way that leads the listener down the road to Connemara, to ‘the skull the skull the skull the skull. . . the abode of stones’ and the audience is left amazed. Another fascinating innovation concerns a certain mannerism of the Boy. Young Keppler-Robinson, before answering Mr. Albert’s questions, looks away, and pauses, as if consulting some distant wavelength. ‘Are you a native of these parts?’ asks Vladimir. The boy turns his head slowly, toward the wing, and then slowly re-centres his gaze on Vladimir, before replying, ‘Yes Sir’. It is another light touch that subtly underscores the Boy’s status as messenger as well as the mystery of the entire exchange. Such manoeuvres as Lamb and Keppler-Robinson devised are typical of the original grace notes that distinguished this otherwise faithful Godot.

Ian McKellen, when asked by the Wall Street Journal (Chai, 2013) if his and Patrick Stewart’s Godot was ‘the funniest’, as some have contended, and whether or not Beckett meant it to be so, said, ‘I would not know how to make it less funny’. Surely, Beckett would, and did, and the GSLI players do as well. No lines are delivered to be ‘the funniest’. Vladimir and Estragon are in no mood to charm us. But comedy does issue from the actors’ movements and the silences against the backdrop of a static world, rather than through clowning. The humor inscribed into Godot can be found in these horological precisions. As Bergson wrote, ‘Something mechanical in something living’ is comic. (Bergson, n.p.)

In the Beckett world, whether people move or not, they talk. Lovett and Lydon are particularly good when their stichomythia is more like two men sharing a single sentence, keeping silence at bay:

Estragon: So long as one knows.
Vladimir: One can bide one’s time.
Estragon: One knows what to expect.
Vladimir: No further need to worry.
Estragon: Simply wait.
Vladimir: We’re used to it.

Act II repeats the balletic exactitudes of Act I, and of course, is marked by the reversals suffered by Pozzo and Lucky. Moore’s Pozzo, now blind, his sententious King’s English strained by terror, is as sympathetic as this fatuous character might ever be. Lucky, now his guide, collapses under the weight, literally. The cruciform tableau, Pozzo angled across Lucky, soon to be joined by a suddenly overwhelmed Vladimir and Estragon, is sad, certainly the end of the ‘play’ of these characters. One feels for the whole lot of them, as if they are beached and dying in a mean world.

Laughter, Bergson also wrote, ‘stands in need of an echo’ and thereby acquires its ‘social function’ (Bergson, n.p.). Interestingly, in a Godot not played for the echo, the laugh, you get a less automatic, more self-aware response, whatever it might be – one of a respectful silence, or an uncomfortable one. Of course, one might decide that it is funny – as I always do when Vladimir, upon the entrance of Pozzo and Lucky in Act II, says, ‘At last! Reinforcements at last!’ as if the odds have just been bettered. Lovett does not play it for a laugh, so one needn’t. Indeed, nothing is certain.

In the midst of the Godot run, NYU sponsored a one-day symposium, which featured panel discussions among Walter Asmus, Jonathan Kalb, and the Lovetts. At the panel titled ‘Godot on Stage: Performance and Influence’, Kalb raised a provocative issue: ‘I am not a purist at all’, he said, ‘but theatre will stagnate if people aren’t allowed to do what they think is interesting or right’. Asmus agreed. Although a longtime friend of Beckett’s and frequent collaborator, not only on the Schiller production in 1975 but on the television plays in Stuttgart, Asmus accepted that directors and players would find changes preferable. He even conceded that Paul Chan had every right to do his New Orleans production without Estate approval. ‘Just do it’, he said. ‘Not a point of discussion’.

For the Lovetts, the question of fidelity to the Beckett-approved Godot is moot. ‘The play is only 75 years old’, Conor Lovett told me in an interview. ‘It’s not Shakespeare yet. We are not setting out to find out what we can do that hasn’t been done. We simply feel that it is such amazing work, let’s find out what Beckett wanted to bring out and let’s find out how we encounter that and what it brings out in us’. Judy Hegarty Lovett echoes this, pointing out that, even the vaunted stage directions of Beckett invite interpretation: ‘Every moon is a new moon, every tree a new tree with any number of leaves’ (private correspondence).

Closing the symposium, Asmus clearly approved of the GSLI production, admiring particularly its precision and use of discomfiting silences, which prompted in him thoughts of going further: ‘I don’t want any cheap laughs. I want them standing there trying to survive’. For his next Godot, he said, he might have ‘hours and hours of silence’. No one laughed.

Michael Coffey
DOI: 10.3366/jobs.2016.0179

 

WORKS CITED

Beckett, Samuel (1954), Waiting for Godot, New York: Grove Press.

Bergson, Henri, ‘Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic’, http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/4532, accessed 19 February 2016.

Chai, Barbara (2013), ‘Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart Say “Waiting for Godot Is a Beckett of Laughs”’, (blog), http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2013/12/13, accessed 22 February 2016.

Kalb, Jonathan (1989), Beckett in Performance, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Knowlson, James (1996), Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett, New York: Grove Press.

Lawlor, Seán (2010), ‘Review of Waiting for Godot, directed by Sean Mathias, Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London’, Journal of Beckett Studies, 19:1, pp. 123–8.

McMillan, Dougald, and James Knowlson, eds. (1993), The Theatrical Notebooks of Samuel Beckett, vol. 1. Waiting for Godot, London: Faber and Faber.

McMullan, Anna, Trish McTighe, David Pattie and David Tucker (2014), ‘Staging Beckett: Constructing Histories of Performance,’ Journal of Beckett Studies, 23:1, pp. 11–33.

Nixon, Mark (2011), Samuel Beckett’s German Diaries, 1936–1937, London: Continuum.