The accidental Samuel Beckett festival now going on in Washington (Scena Theatre’s three one-acts, Arcturus Theatre’s two one-acts) has been made internationally lustrous by acclaimed Irish director Garry Hynes and the impressive Druid ensemble’s production of Waiting for Godot. With this play, the Galway company has tackled the equivalent of a theatrical Mount Everest, and they have done it with a kind of reverence paid to a master of twentieth-century’s drama but also with the intention to capture faithfully his indelible style. It’s a style of performance noted not just for stripping down details to bare essentials but to my mind involves a process closer to opera and dance than what many Americans more comfortably see as theater.
The production has the pedigree that makes it a show that all serious theatre-goers should see. The production like the play has taken risks and presents a work with some challenges not for the faint of heart.
The opening night performance put me in mind of another production. The year was 1976 and two international theater festivals (Théâtre des Nations and BITEF, a festival representing Eastern European theater of the time) had been brought together in Belgrade. Tito was the head of the then Yugoslavia, and the festival helped draw back the Iron Curtain for audiences to experience the rich and sometimes provocative theater of Soviet bloc countries and offer the rare opportunity for their artists to comingle with their counterparts in the west. One of the most anticipated events was the Berliner Ensemble’s production of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot directed by the playwright himself. I was one of the many who sat enrapt, witnessing the austere and tightly choreographed performance breathed into by the powerful presences of some of German theatre’s best performers.
Although Beckett was not in attendance, the Assistant Director shared in a post-show discussion that Beckett had spent over two years in preparation, creating a director’s prompt book not only indicating every stage cross but giving each line a specific gesture and shape.
Hynes seemingly has done the same. She has borrowed, as Beckett himself did, from traditions of silent film clowning and vaudeville or, as it’s known across the pond, music hall. Two guys, one tall and one short and a little stubby, interact, with the Jack Sprat figure helping the little guy put on a pair of too-tight boots. What starts out as pushing, pulling, pounding and hopping ends with the tall chap using the guy’s leg in the air as a crank and flipping his entire body in space to get the job done. Similarly, there’s a classic hat-passing trick involving four hands, three hats, and two heads. Brilliant.
Waiting for Godot
closes May 20, 2018
Details and tickets
The play can be very funny, and Aaron Monaghan and Marty Rea work beautifully on stage together as the long and short of it, that is Estragon and Vladimir. They somehow get the balance just right between executing the highly stylized choreography yet somehow keeping the humanity of these two lost souls in a dying and unpredictable world. When they play the comedy, and there is plenty, it is executed with precision mixed with not just a smidge of Monty Python (as in the Ministry of Silly Walks.) They manage always to ground their work in character.
The plot is, for those who don’t know the work, thin and non-material. The playwright doesn’t provide many clues nor does he ever want one to analyze or interpret too much (which hasn’t stopped people from trying for the last nigh on sixty-five years.)
Two fellows are out on a nondescript open expanse, broken only by a spindly, leafless tree. They are waiting for someone called Godot (pronounced God’-oh.) They’ve been waiting a long time and know each other as people do who’ve spent a lifetime together. One knows the other’s feet hurt (and smell,) and the other knows his companion has painful urinary problems. They pass the time.
A bullyish, well-dressed and well-fed figure enters, dragging (or sometimes driving) by means of a long rope a companion who carries the big man’s belongings. Their wildly inequitable relationship plays out in front of our intrigued but somewhat disapproving two guys (addressing each other as Didi and Gogo.) Pozzo’s narcissism and cruelty has pushed his exhausted servant-slave Lucky to his limit, and the scene seems a tinderbox suggesting something will explode.
But we don’t get any old-school dramatic climax. Vladimir is tossed a bone and Lucky “turns on” in a tour de force monologue, one of the greatest ever, and is delivered at lightning speed by the inspired actor Garrett Lombard. The real awful event (or events,) like in a Greek tragedy, happen offstage. When Pozzo and Lucky return in Act II, Pozzo is blind and Lucky has lost his voice.
Nonetheless, emotionally, the play is coiled. The rage of Beckett’s own voice comes through – a fist shaking at God in a godless universe. Here is Pozzo from the scene in the second act where Pozzo and Lucky return:
Pozzo: Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! It’s abominable! When! When! One day, is that not enough for you, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we’ll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you?
I confess, Pozzo and Lucky have always made me uncomfortable. I am not sure as an American, even without casting Lucky as an African-American (which Lombard is not,) one can’t uncouple the theatrical image from our egregious history of slave-owning. Today, there is also perhaps an inevitable distressing comparison with a prominent narcissistic bully living in our midst.
Added to this, Hynes direction has pushed actor Rory Nolan in the role of Pozzo into an over-the-top rendition of an old theatrical style, coupling melodrama with music hall. Nolan delivers his performance with a lot of vocal and gestural flourishes, mincing mannerisms and camp poses. Pozzo gets reduced somewhat to a stereotype hammy Actor-Manager of bygone days. I miss the layer of potential menace and moreover am not sure the style of humor translates in this country. It even gets a little tiresome.
The set by Francis O’Connor, long time collaborator with Hynes, is spare and beautiful. The floor of the playing space looks like a dried and cracked riverbed. Behind it there is not so much sky as a drab slab of color, looking like aged concrete, an opaque wall pocked with pollution. The moon, when it comes, wobbles across the vast space. The beauty is achieved by James F. Ingalls, a terrific lighting designer, where the world gets painted with light expressing shifting moods. Ingalls’ work in the dance world has served him well, for he sensitively uses both silhouette and side lighting to emphasize the physical theatre aspects of the production, and he catches and magnifies human forms taking shapes and extending dance stretches or warrior asanas in what becomes a magical space.
The ensemble work of the four men, their focus and control, is giving Washington a very special evening and it should serve as a reminder of the importance of valuing ensemble and developing an ensemble style. While Malcolm Fuller is a breath of fresh air as Boy and serves as an angel figure in his visitation, the deep lasting impression will remain with Hynes’ production, an ode to Beckett, and the four committed men in her ensemble to ‘go for it.’
Beckett’s poetry sings, and playing his music demands following the author-as-composer’s score. Druid has done just that.
Waiting for Godot. Written by Samuel Beckett. Directed by Garry Hynes. Scenic and Costume Design by Francis O’Connor. Lighting Design by James F. Ingalls. Sound Design by Greg Clarke. Movement Directed by Nick Winston. Produced by Druid. Presented by the Shakespeare Theatre Company at the Lansburgh Theatre. With Garrett Lombard, Aaron Monaghan, Rory Nolan, Marty Rea, and Malcolm Fuller. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.
The Druid company is on tour. Next stop is Chicago.