August 2, 2008 performance reviewed by Frances Benn Hall
Beckett’s tramps don’t need Irish accents but they very possibly have Irish ancestors.
Looking back on theatre history of the 20th century, it is apparent that one play has generated more speculation, interpretation, and ambiguity than any other single play as critics, academics, and audiences, troubled but delighted by it, try to extract from it the author’s intent as to meaning and production details.
The play of course is Samuel Beckett’s (1906 – 1989) Waiting for Godot, first production in French in Paris in 1953 and first Broadway production (in Beckett’s own translation) in 1956.
During his lifetime, Beckett refused to elaborate as to the play’s meaning (although he scoffed at the godot/god suggestion, pointing out that did not work in French). “I am no intellectual,” he insisted. “All I am is feeling.”
However, he was intensely interested in how his plays were performed, attending rehearsals (even those in German) and insisting that Alan Schneider direct English language perfomances in America. For Beckett, performance was vital.
Since his death, directors have tended to join the ranks of the seekers for meaning, reveling in how much still seems to lay hidden within the play, the characters, and ultimately, in its style of production.
Although the script has always occasionally referenced the presence of an audience, the productions I have seen were essentially representational—great for the poignant moments that break one’s heart, but also enclosing the slapstick clowning.
In Anders Cato’s innovative, riveting, and magnificently performed production on the Berkshire Theatre Festival’s Unicorn stage, the presentational style dominates the play, and we, the audience, are pulled totally into what is happening on the stage—which is always a stage, one with a real door and a real doorknob.
And yet, while the Chaplin-like tramps cavort through their incredible sufferings, Cato is able at critical moments to make us forget to be part of the play, to pull us into silence and awe as Vladimir (David Adkins) speaks these chilling lines:
“Was I sleeping, while others suffered? Am I sleeping now? Tomorrow when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today? That with Estragon my friend, at this place I waited for Godot? That Pozzo passed, with his carrier, and that he spoke to us? Probably. But in all that what truth will there be? He will know nothing. He’ll tell us about the blows he received and I’ll give him a carrot. Astride a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the whole, lingeringly, the grave digger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries. But habit is a great deadener. At me too, someone is looking, of me too someone is saying, He is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on.”
Cato’s version is able to make us forget being audience at such moments. In that lies the amazing side of this performance, despite the fact that most of the time we are a part of the play, the innumerable scenes of hilarity in which the two tramps Vladimir and Estragon (Stephen De Rosa) cope with their infirmities: the weak bladder and the lame feet.
Beckett has written into his script many specific antics; Cato and his two tramps have found many more and gallop away with them. To cite only one, the bawdy antic gymnastics involved as Vladimir helps Estragon put on his shoes are ingenious.
The two play off each other beautifully. And beneath their quarrelling, their cavorting, and their banter there is the sense of an abiding dependency and love as they go on waiting.
The second pair of actors, Lucky (Randy Harrison) and Pozzo (David Schramm) are just as talented. Pozzo with all of his three hundred pound girth oozes onto the stage to dominate with his cruelty and inhumanity. His voice booms with vitriolic passion as he devours his lunch before those starving on stage. He is detestable in his voluptuous greed, his cruelty to Lucky, his inhumanity. During most of his long scene in the first act he dominates and plays to his audience as well as to the actors on stage.
And yet in the second act, blind and helpless, he can, despite all the hilarity in the efforts of others to raise him from his fallen state, have a moment one can never forget in which furiously and angrily he rants in torment only to end quietly “… the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.” But it is only a moment before he shouts his over-powering self off the stage. A masterful performance.
Lucky, the speechless dumb servant, weighted by Pozzo’a regalia (and symbolic weight of all man’s inhumanity to man) is marvelously cast in a role far removed from those recent leads on the BTF stage (in Equus and Amadeus). Only allowed one spoken cue, when it comes, it is a torrent of babble without punctuation or pauses, sense but nonsense, a volcano of words that spill from him. As delivered, it is as riveting as is his tormented body.
And when he is ordered to dance, his abilities and the dance he executes combine pain with defiance and a macabre humor. A directorial touch not only has the dance repeated (it deserves repetition) but in the second act Vladimir attempts repeating it—again an insightful addition to the action.
Indeed the play abounds in far more physical action than the script provides. Small moments such as the tenderness with which Vladimir removes his coat and puts it across the shoulders of the sleeping Estragon and the moments when the pair pass the time with a canter about the stage. And then sudden moments beyond laughter when they regard the tree as useless without a rope on which to hang one’s self.
The setting is an innovative nowhere—a seeming room with dirt strewn, open doorways right and left through which these four can pass. But it is also a room with an upstage center door. With a door-knob. Through this door (to another universe, but one that perhaps includes the unseen Godot) enters A Boy (Cooper Stanton).
The part is a small one and directors seem to have trouble dealing with it. (In a long-ago production at the BTF, the lad (Kris Tabori) was dressed in blue and posed as the figure in the Gainsborough painting.) That did not work for me. Regretfully, neither does the current one.
The too-tall lad, in shorts, could scarcely fit under the door jamb and he, a skillful young actor, seemed directed to be wooden and flat. This role is important not only for his messages, or non-messages, but because within Vladimir’s interrogation of him there are lines such as, “ Where do you sleep?” Vladimir, who unlike Estragon, never seems to sleep, seems to almost remember a world in which a boy could sleep, in the hay with his brother.
So for me, he must be a real believable boy of some sort in this unbelievable non-world. But of course I am reading into it something I can’t find.
Besides the door, the set has one other significant feature. The ceiling has a great opening (through which the lone tree can extend,) but more importantly, the moon that rises at the end of each act can appear.
It is an enormous moon and the image of the two tramps, their backs to the audience standing viewing it, is emblematic of the play. A painting by Caspar David Friedrich has been usually given as inspiration. (I happen to root for Beckett’s Dublin friend, the artist Jack Yeats and his stunning painting Two Travelers, which hangs in the Tate Gallery in London.)
What all this amounts to is the inability to put into a few words all the wonders of this play which continues to tantalize.
Obviously, the production is riveting one and not to be missed. Indeed one could see it several times and still not take in all its incredible nuances. Everyone connected with it has exhibited labors of love. Whatever productions of Waiting For Godot you have seen, (or not seen or even read) see this one. It will keeping you laughing, but awe you as well.
Personal note on Beckett:
Reading Beckett and imagining performances, I always find echoes of the Irish Beckett. He was born in Dublin and lived there until graduation from Trinity College. The Abbey Theatre was in its blossoming and he was alive to that inheritance.
One has only to look at J. M. Synge’s tramps in Well of the Saints and The Tinker’s Wedding, or the tramps of Yeats in The Cat and The Moon (one blind, one lame), or even at the strange tramp duo in Yeats’ Purgatory, played on a bare stage with a tree and burned house. And of course there is the waiting, waiting, waiting in Yeats’ early neo-Noh play At the Hawks Well, and waiting the theme of Godot.
Beckett’s tramps don’t need Irish accents but they very possibly have Irish ancestors.