Monday, December 16, 2013

Waiting For Godot

Sydney Theatre Company (STC) and Qantas present WAITING FOR GODOT by Samuel Beckett at the Sydney Theatre, Hickson Rd. Walsh Bay.

WAITING FOR GODOT by Samuel Beckett is regarded as one of the most important plays of the last century.

Here is a little history: Samuel Beckett was born in 1906, in Dublin. He was educated at Trinity in Dublin, majoring in French and Italian, graduating with a BA in 1927, and an MA in 1931. He taught English in Paris and became, intimately, acquainted with James Joyce and his circle, sometimes, even reading aloud for Joyce, as Joyce's sight failed him. In 1938, he published a novel MURPHY (written in English). He stayed in Paris after war was declared in 1939, and became a member of the French Resistance in Paris, and was forced to flee, in 1942, to Unoccupied France until the end of the war. The novel MOLLOY, and another, MALONE MEURT (DIES) were published in 1951. Richard Seaver, an American working for a French literary magazine MERLIN, in Paris, after accidentally, but fortuitously, coming across both these works, 'introduced' Beckett to the public, puzzled as to why he was not better known, (from his memoir, THE TENDER HOUR OF TWILIGHT, edited by his wife, Jeannette Seaver) :
What impressed me most was the deadpan humour, the self-doubt, the self deprecation layered on a bed of rock-hard erudition, worn gossamer light. At the same time from book to book there was a successful stripping away of the extraneous: what had sometimes glittered but cluttered in MURPHY had virtually disappeared in MOLLOY and MALONE. The movement seemed inexorably toward minimalism, perhaps ultimately towards silence.
 ...Is it possible for Mr Beckett to progress further without succumbing to the incomplete incoherence of inarticulate sound, to the silence of nothingness where mud and Molloy, where object and being, are not only contiguous but one? Mr Beckett's next book, announced for publication early this winter, will have to reply. Perhaps the name is significant. It is called L'INNOMMABLE - THE UNNAMABLE. (1).
What prescience from Mr Seaver! Before the new novel appeared, Mr Seaver came across several short stories, SUITE and L'EXPULSE (THE EXPELLED), and then was alerted by a young budding actress, Delphine Seyrig, to the probability that Roger Blin, an actor/director, one of her close friends, was directing a play by Monsieur Beckett,
... either a long play entitled ELEUTHERIA or (a) shorter one WAITING FOR GODOT (EN ATTTENDANT GODOT), a portion of which we had heard the year before at the French radio's Club d' Essai. More likely the latter play, she said, because it had fewer actors and would be far less expensive to produce. ... (1. p.32). (P.S. It was an inheritance of Ms Seyrig's that actually bank-rolled the production!)
Richard Seaver:
... posters on the Left Bank announced that a play by Samuel Beckett, EN ATTENDANT GODOT ... was scheduled to open in early January (the 5th of January,1953) at the Theatre de Babylone ... Roger Blin directed the production and played Pozzo (which Beckett had written with him in mind.) .. So I went alone, and when I say alone, I am close to literal, for there could not have been more than a dozen souls in the audience. As the play progressed, I realised I was in the presence of something special, the likes of which I had never read or witnessed. And that included the plays of two other playwrights fresh on the scene of the Paris theatre, the Romanian Eugene Ionesco (LES CHAISES, LA LECON) and, a Russian, Arthur Adamov (LA GRANDE ET LA PETITE MANOEUVRE), both of whom, like Beckett, were writing in French. ... Two or three weeks later I invited a friend (his future wife Jeannette) to see the play with me. That night the audience had more than doubled, a good sign, but scarcely enough ... Thirty-some, if memory serves. At the curtain, the applause was scattered, hesitant at best. When the lights came up, half the audience had already left, and several of the remaining heads were shaking, either in disbelief or in disappointment... How did my friend like it? She was stunned, fascinated. but she professed not to understand much of the play's inner meaning. How did she know that it had a deeper meaning? Oh, of that she was sure. 'Aren't we all waiting for Godot,' she said, 'whoever or whatever that might be? I found it funny and sad at the same time. Isn't it maybe about how often useless it is to hope? And yet they come back night after night, which means they haven't entirely given up hope? ... Didn't you have the feeling that Vladimir and Estragon had been waiting not just for those two days but FOREVER? ... 'You didn't live through the war here,' she went on, 'but you tell me Mr Beckett did. I doubt he could have written this play if he had not suffered the German occupation.' Why? I asked. 'Well one reading might be - and I'm obviously wrong - that Pozzo is the Germans and Lucky is us the French, don't you think? They too had a leash around our neck, they beat us and killed us for no reason at all, they made us sing and dance to their tune, were as cruel and senseless as Pozzo is. Then, in the second act, Pozzo is laid low, blinded, just as the Germans were in 1945 and later. Just a thought. I'm being far too literal, I know, for this play's universal. I'd like to know what you think?' (1 - p.162).

(See blog on Satre's MEN WITHOUT SHADOWS***; Genet's THE MAIDS***)

Cross the Channel to London to Peter Hall in 1955, (from an interview with Richard Eyre):
I was running the Arts Theatre in Great Newport Street. ... I went into my little cupboard office and found a script which said "WAITING FOR GODOT by Samuel Beckett'" and a letter from Donald Albery, who was a West End impresario. It said, 'I don't know whether you know this play: it's on in Paris in a seventy-five-seat theatre, and it's been on for some time; it's very highly regarded. No one will do it in the West End, no director will touch it (Peter Brook had turned it down, for instance), and every actor has turned it down. I've seen some of your work, at the Arts theatre, and I liked it, so I wonder whether you would like to do it.' So with a sense that I was certainly at the very end of a queue, I looked at it. I'd vaguely heard of Beckett; I hadn't read a word of him; I hadn't seen the play in Paris, but I'd heard of it. And I read it. I won't say that I said to myself: this is the major play of the mid-century and it's a turning point in drama, but I did find it startlingly original. First of all that it turned waiting into something dramatic. Second, that waiting becomes a metaphor for living. What are we actually living for, what are we waiting for, will something come, will Godot come, will something come to explain why we're here and what we're doing. And I found it terribly funny, and I also found it genuine, poetic drama. ... The cast was Peter Woodthorpe, Paul Daneman, Peter Bull and Timothy Bateson. ... "the play opened in late August or September (actually the 3rd August) in 1955. The first night was full of cheers and counter cheers.When Estragon said: 'Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it's awful", an English voice said, 'Hear, hear!' ... They were absolutely baffled, a lot of them, but half the people said: this is it, this is what we have been waiting for. And the press was equally divided. ... on the level of what it brought to theatre, I think it nailed the colours again to the old mast of theatre: that theatre is a place of imagination and of metaphor and of contradiction. It is the Shakespeare mast to me. It also says that there is no active theatre without the tension between the form of the writing, the form of the creation, and the emotion that the actor is trying to express. Whether it's Shakespeare's iambic pentameters or whether it's Beckett's very precise, beautiful cadenced prose, it has a rhythm and an actuality. I would advance the theory that GODOT is the masterpiece of the mid-century, certainly way, way way more important than (Osborne's) LOOK BACK IN ANGER. (Harold Pinter agreed: Osborne merely stirred things up - didn't really change anything, simply touching the nerve endings of the complacent theatre world and society.) And GODOT is still there now as a great play and will remain so because it has metaphorical richness which makes one think of Shakespeare. If you want to think of GODOT as a play about politics, it's there. If you want to think GODOT as a play about relations, intimate relations between man and woman, or man and man, or friend and friend like an early version of WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?, it's there." It emancipated a whole generation from naturalism: "I don't think Harold (Pinter) - or Tom (Stoppard) - would have written the way they did write- -or at all, had it not been for Beckett." (2-p.47-48). 
(Now, I know I could not have said anything that Mr Hall said any better, and so, humbly, forgive my lengthy quoting, please.)

Now, come down to Australia: The first production was at the Arrow Theatre in Melbourne in September, 1957 with Barry Humphries as Estragon and Peter O'Shaughnessy as Vladimir (1957 - someone's finger on the international pulse of theatre adventuring!), it toured to the Sydney Independent Theatre in May, 1958. I have seen many productions both professional and amateur - universities, love it - one set, five actors, just as Delphine Seyrig predicted, it's likely to be done, as it is so inexpensive to mount - a tree and a rock! - as is the other inexpensive perennial favourite, THE MAIDS. (I played Pozzo, in 1965, when 17 at Alexander Mackie Teachers College! - we had no idea what we were doing, I had no idea what I was doing, for sure! - a precocious and, definitely, naive Catholic school boy). Mel Gibson as Estragon with Geoffrey Rush as Vladimir, John Clayton as Pozzo and Robert Menzies as Lucky, for NIDA Jane St, in 1979, directed by George Whaley. John Gaden and Max Cullen directed by Neil Armfield at Belvoir. Ian McKellen and Roger Rees at the Sydney Opera House in 2011, and now Richard Roxburgh as Estragon and Hugo Weaving as Vladimir. One way or another there are those of us sitting in the Sydney Theatre, who have, been in the play, directed the play or, at least, seen this play many, many times before, and so bring some insight/prejudices to it, and others who are experiencing it for a first time, accompanied with all of its illustrious history, or not. There are those of us who have seen it in intimate venues such as the tiny Jane St Theatre in Randwick, and now in this, relatively huge venue - no real intimacy here - the scale dimensions of the Sydney Theatre (896 seats) a long way from the Parisian Theatre de Babylone (75 seats!) or the Arts Theatre of London, some sixty years ago.

Certainly, on the night I attended this production by Andrew Upton, the audience, mostly, had a rollicking time, and applauded generously. Whether they found the play sad, insightful and/or metaphorical as well, I was not able to ascertain. To some I hope. To some, I hope it was more than the comic skill and acting finesse of this fine company that rewarded the production, for indeed, the acting by this company was of a very impressive standard. Five wonderful ensemble performances, Richard Roxburgh (Estragon), Hugo Weaving (Valdimir), Philip Quast (Pozzo), Luke Mullins (Lucky) and on my night, young Otis Pavlovic (Boy), the sensibilities between them was palpable.

The comic rapport between Mr Roxburgh and Weaving was the source of much of the laughter in this production, often extended to the exhaustion of audience response - the physical 'clowning' garnishes, maybe, sometimes, overwhelming the textual core of the work. The physical invention sometimes appearing to be the object of the playing in this material, directed by Mr Upton. (breaking out of the fourth wall, over the stage edge of the proscenium, seemed to be a deliberate crowd pleasing choice - it had little other logic). Mr Weaving sounded as if he were giving a too reverential,"classical" approach to Vladimir - stately, weighty, with a heightened sonority, that placed the character, aurally, into a kind of aspic jelly - of a character we have met many times before. This was in contrast to the delightful irreverence that the more lively and plastic, and seemingly, spontaneous effects of Mr Roxburgh's performance were making. He seemed to be genuinely moving towards a more personal realisation of the inner mechanisms of Estragon - it had more of a contemporaneous investigation of the possibilities of creating the character anew. It was, for me, an Australian 'nose-snook' at the usual received performances of this character - it felt fresh and challenging, no museum feel at all.

Mr Mullins as Lucky, tops a year of wonderful offers of stagecraft and invention in Sydney this year: LITTLE MERCY, ANGELS IN AMERICA, SMALL AND TIRED. His creative invention and absolutely non-stop twitches of life result in an arresting but overactive performance. Seated in the circle, looking down onto the stage, Mr Mullins was constantly drawing attention to his presence - I wondered if, for the sake of the clarity of the text, if a little less invention would have been better. Mr Quast made an impactful entrance as Pozzo but unlike Mr Mullins seemed to disappear in stage effect over the night, while Mr Pavlovic gave his two short scenes with streamlined innocence, and was genuinely impressive as a result.

Originally Tamas Asher was to direct this production, but was not able to fulfil the engagement, and what we see at the Sydney Theatre is a play written by an Irishman in France (the play was originally written in French and was re-worked in English by Beckett, himself) in a production conceived by two Hungarians - including the Set Designer, Zsolt Khell - directed by an Australian, Andrew Upton, assisted by Mr Asher's Hungarian assistant, now Mr Upton's Assistant, Anna Lengyel, with an Australian cast. Indeed, a multi-cultural product.

The very imposing Set Design of a slewed and ruined, red theatre proscenium arch, lined with small dead light globes, set against the theatre's actual arch; an ashen grey, moon-like tessellated floor, with black full and half walls holding ruined water heaters and broken electrical boxes, dominated by a dead looking tree with branch (that latterly sprouts green leaves) and a large scattering of blackened narrow tree stumps, plus a box-like rock, had no clear architectural logic or metaphorical statement for me, and certainly resonated as a middle-European cultural look, at odds with an Australian response to this play, expected by me, from the Sydney Theatre Company. The simple stage directions from Mr Beckett for the play's setting seemed to be entirely, unnecessarily, superseded. Mr Beckett was often very unhappy with the productions of his plays.

Of the original English production, Peter Woodthorpe (in the STC program notes), tells us when Beckett visited the London Criterion Theatre transfer from the Arts Theatre
...There was a beautiful smile and he just said, 'Bloody marvellous!" And he held me. But he disliked the production. He told me he disliked it, so there you are. He hated the set with the walk-on. Three walk-ons. ... Peter hall hadn't trusted the play and had commissioned a set. ... 
Of the later German (Berlin) production, which had good reviews, Beckett said "I wish I hadn't gone ... the direction was all wrong." and though he added, "If the Germans had listened to me they'd have emptied the theatre far faster, I can assure you.". ... Within a few short years later, (he) would become deeply engaged in the details of each production, attend the rehearsals of virtually all his plays, often in essence becoming the director, and who in subsequently printed editions would indicate minute detail the stage directions to be followed meticulously."  !!! - (1. p.210). 
I wonder what Beckett would have made of this set design. The lighting Design by Nick Schlieper, the spare Sound Design by Max Lyandvert and the Costuming by Alice Babidge were an asset to the instructions and intentions of the textual demands.

There did not seem, for me, much point to this production of WAITING FOR GODOT, having come to know the play so well over time. The anticipated pleasure of watching Mr Weaving and Roxburgh (two of Australia's leading actors), and what they could/would bring to this play, was the reason I spent my money to see it. I had hoped that the revival of this oft-played work would also offer, from these two interesting actors, an insight to it that would be of vital interest for an Australian audience today. In a limited season of play choices at the STC, I could see no reason, otherwise, to revive this work, seen so recently at the Sydney Opera House, with an illustrious English Company of Actors (now playing in New York - Patrick Stewart replacing Roger Rees, seen in the Sydney production). Sadly, other than a continuing appreciation of the clowning skills of these two performers, seen so wonderfully in the previous Asher production of Chekhov's UNCLE VANYA, (from the program notes, it was, apparently, the original inspiration to create this production) this production is no longer a radical confrontation, either in form or matter. Is it, that we may be so familiar with the play now, that without the comic clowning around the text, as the body of the performance, it finally becomes quite boring - maybe unplayably boring as an enlightening, confronting text? If you have never seen it, or if you have, maybe, only once or twice, or not for a long time, it may have impact. Already, ROSENCRATZ AND GUILDENSTERN, or some of the works of Harold Pinter (NO MAN'S LAND) may have more cultural credence, interest and viability today? In this production only Mr Roxburgh's performance seems to be the one attempting to live today, on an Australian stage, illuminating the text, and not beatifically representing GODOT as a classic, or, as an opportunity to clown. Should we just give the play a rest and either write a new play for these two actors, or find another text to highlight their empathetic chemistry - Mamet's A LIFE IN THE THEATRE, perhaps? (Slight but full of actorly opportunity to entertain us.)

This is a very entertaining production of an undoubted important and influential play coming from the middle of the last century. It is a great play, that may need a performance rest. Academically, of interest, kinetically worn out?

From Michael Blakemore's new book, STAGE BLOOD:
Authentic memory - that precipitate of facts suspended in a volatile element of feeling - must always be a little different for anyone who works in the theatre. Stage performance is so transient that all we have left of the work we most believed in are these traces of recall. ...This encounter, all the more fervent for being private, is one that later in our careers we will sometimes regret as an infection we had the misfortune to contract, but at other, better times see as a kind of apostolic succession, going back to Garrick and to Shakespeare, and perhaps much further back to Aeschylus and beyond, to the first storyteller who ever stood in front of a random group of people, tamed them into becoming an audience, and then, little by little, began to induce them something akin to awe, so that they forgot their personal concerns and collectively began to see the world around them and their own place in it in a new and unexpected way. Every good performance, every good production is simply another link in that long chain, of which we are part and on which we are dependent, because it connects us to belief. (3. p.343)
Each of us have our response to a performance, and I hope this production of Samuel Beckett's masterpiece, WAITING FOR GODOT at the STC, gave some of its audience this perception of the power of theatre: "a connection to belief" - so eloquently expressed by Mr Blakemore in his new book: STAGE BLOOD. A recommended read for Christmas, for all theatre goers.

References and Notes :

  1. THE TENDER HOUR OF TWILIGHT, by Richard Seaver, 2012, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York,.
  2. TALKING THEATRE Interviews with Theatre People, by Richard Eyre, 2009 (paperback, 2011) Nick Hern Books, London, 
  3. STAGE BLOOD Five tempestuous Years in the Early Life of the National Theatre, by Michael Blakemore, 2013, Faber and Faber.
  4. Companion to Theatre in Australia - Philip Parsons, General Editor. Currency Press - 1995.
  5. NIDA by John Clark. Focus Publishing Pty Ltd. - 2003
  6. A very unusually  informative program presented by the Sydney Theatre Company = $10.00. 

1 comment:

Unknown said...

OK Kevin - I'm gunna say it... mebbe the play is boring (great without question in a technical sense). I saw Beckett's production, I saw JP Mignon's- which was pretty funny, but I wonder if this is a classic like Seagull etc. Mebbe a flash in it's own pan (and this is no comment on STC which I haven't seen), but I can't feel the brilliance that so many others see - I can see the logic, the extraordinary thinking behind Beckett, but I'm not convinced he was that into feeling. And that is the fundamental quality of the theatrical experience. The rest is philosophy - which I love but is not theatre