Based in Galway, Irish theatre company Druid is known for its epic productions of large-scale works such as DruidSynge, all six John Millington Synge plays performed in a single day, DruidMurphy, a similar showing of the work of Tom Murphy, and DruidShakespeare, a presentation of Richard II, Henry IV (Part One), Henry IV (Part Two) and Henry V.
Their highly acclaimed production of Waiting for Godot started as a small festival piece, was given a run at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, and is now touring throughout Ireland and the United States.
Sarah Scafidi caught up with cast members Aaron Monaghan and Marty Rea to talk about inspiration, process, and finding the funny in Waiting for Godot:
So, you are company members with Druid?
Aaron Monaghan: Yes. We’ve worked with Druid on and off over the last number of years. The four members of the cast of Waiting for Godot have all worked with Druid over the years. We’ve done some big projects with them, and as a result of working together, they formalized us as part of an ensemble. So, we continue to work with Druid.
Marty Rea: Yeah. And then within the ensemble – which has been going on for about six years – the four of us kind of came up with the idea of doing Godot together. We suggested it to Garry Hynes [Druid’s Artistic Director], and she went for it.
I heard she was a little hesitant at first.
M: Uh, yeah.
A: I think the famous line was that she, “didn’t know if the world needed another Godot.” There was a very famous Irish production [of Godot] that the Gate Theatre in Ireland had been doing for years. They seemed to nearly own Waiting For Godot. Garry used to talk about that in interviews, saying that the idea came from the ensemble, and we used to joke that that meant if the production failed, it was on our necks. Maybe that’s why she was hesitant.
So, how did you convince her? Why does the world need another Godot?
M: We beat her up! No, at that stage, we had been working together on quite a few things, certainly two big epic shows that Druid had done: DruidMurphy, which was a nine-hour celebration of Tom Murphy’s work, and then we did another, a couple of years later, called DruidShakespeare which was the Henriad from Richard II through Henry V. Because of our work together, I think the four of us proved that we were serious about the work, that we were genuinely thinking about bringing something new to the play, and that we wanted to do it more than anything else. We weren’t really concerned about doing anything amazing with it or anything. We liked the idea of having an opportunity to work together on a big play that the four of us wanted to know more about. And I think she believed us. I think she bought us.
Some of the taglines for the production have deemed it “fresh” and “funny.” Is there any kind of new take on the play? I know Beckett is pretty specific about what you can and cannot do with his plays.
A: We certainly didn’t set out to reinvent the wheel. Like Marty said, we just really wanted to be in a room with Garry. The four of us very much love working together because we bring out a lot of good stuff in each other. We challenge each other, and the work is scary, and the work is challenging. It’s very rewarding. And Godot seemed like a good vehicle for us to do that.
You’re absolutely right, Beckett is very specific with the play. And I suppose, what we unwittingly brought to it is that we’re relatively young in terms of our casting. We are relatively young to be playing the kind of old men that Beckett suggests, or that the famous productions have had. And there’s a fresh energy to that. We were very careful to stick exactly to the script and to the stage directions, and in doing that, we discovered that his stage directions are quite vaudevillian and have a Charlie-Chaplin-Buster-Keaton-Laurel-and-Hardy-esque playfulness to them. We didn’t try and bring that to it, but that emerged from the production. So, I think that’s why you’re hearing those tag lines.
What has it been like to bring such iconic characters to life? Characters that so many other people have played? Was it was it scary? Daunting?
A: Yes and no. When we first did it, we were only ever going to do it as a bit of fun – obviously taking it seriously – but as an experiment for ourselves to do it at a very small theatre in Galway, not quite expecting it to have the success that it had. So, it wasn’t terribly scary. We didn’t think we were going to be reinventing the wheel. But, yeah, there was a certain amount of trepidation stepping into such a famous play. I think we were just trying to get it right in our heads, and we were so submerged in it at the time, that I don’t really remember being scared. It was pretty scary when we did it the second time and had to show it to a bigger audience. I think I feel very settled with it now.
Where was the second production?
M: We started in Galway at the Mick Lally Theatre, which is Druid’s own little theatre. It only seats about a hundred people – quite small. That was for the Galway International Arts Festival, which has a festival audience – so it was an experimental thing just for the sake of working on something for two weeks. It was perfect for that. We never really expected to do it any longer than that. And then, there was a lot of interest shown in it and a lot of excitement, so we ended up at The Abbey Theatre, which is the National Theatre in Dublin, for four weeks the following year. We also went to the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina. Then we did the Irish Tour this year. We just finished that and have come over here now.
You’ve done a few performances in D.C. now. Are there any differences between Irish and American audiences?
A: I would say mostly no difference. We feel it’s a very Irish play. There are a lot of lines that feel particularly Irish to us that Irish audiences might guess, but I think it’s a worldwide play. It’s a very famous play. American audiences know it so well, and there seems to be a really healthy enthusiasm and interest for it. So, right off the bat, I think the American audiences get it. Would you agree?
M: Yeah totally. I don’t think it’s that different at all. As Aaron said, it’s very international. It’s about life. It’s about all the big things – all the basic things. And I think, in that way, it doesn’t matter where we play it.
So, this started as a personal experiment for you as actors. Was it everything you hoped? Has it been fulfilling?
A: It’s been amazing really. I’m not going to lie – it’s been really tough. It’s a really difficult show to do. It’s quite exhausting physically and mentally and emotionally. I think it’s been all the things that we imagined it would be when we set out to do it, but in a completely different way. We come offstage every night still trying to figure it out, still trying to make it better, still talking about it and trying to fix little things. I’m still trying to grab hold of it and get ahead of it, which I think is just impossible. So, in that way, it’s hugely satisfying. And it can be a very terrifying play to do in many, many ways – both in terms of trying to have the energy to do it, and in terms of this bizarre existentialism that you go through. It can be hugely fulfilling because it’s a beautiful play, and it’s an incredibly funny play, and I think part of the experience for us, is that we get to do it with four very close friends and close colleagues that we have a really healthy working relationship with. It’s lovely to know that the work is transferring across the water, and that it seems to be hitting home and hitting some sort of marks. That’s been cool.
You don’t have to answer this if you don’t want to, but have you ever gotten lost in the script? There are so many stories of productions where they skip whole pages or restart scenes.
M: Oh yeah, that was a genuine fear of mine at the beginning. There is a point in the play still, where every night, I always have a little moment of, “oh, Jesus!” are we going to jump?” There are loads of moments in the play that are very, very similar with lots of repetition, and I could see how you would. But touch wood (apparently the Irish version of “knock on wood) that has never happened yet.
A: No, touch wood. I hope you haven’t cursed us! I think the closest thing would be that we put the boots on the wrong feet or things like that. We’ve managed to live with that type of stuff. Hopefully, touch wood, no.
Waiting for Godot
closes May 20, 2018
Details and tickets
What about Godot resonates with you the most? What fascinates you the most?
M: We’re at our late thirties now, and we work in theatre mostly. And working in theatre as a career isn’t very financially rewarding or anything, but if you stick at it – which a few idiots do, like us – it becomes about more than just turning up and doing the work, because you’re trying to get better all the time. You’re trying to learn more all the time. You’re trying to push yourself all the time and become better at doing what you do. So, we had done Murphy, who’s a great writer that we all hold in very high regard, and then, we’d done Shakespeare. And I think Beckett, as an Irish writer, he was kind of sitting there like a big goal or target that had to aim for. It was a bit of an Everest, really. Like JFK said: why go to the moon? Because it’s there. It was a bit like throwing a gauntlet down for ourselves.
But it is incredibly difficult to do. It kind of burrows into your head and into the center of your brain into the center of your heart, and it can scare you sometimes – moments or lines.
What were rehearsals like?
A: God, it was so long ago.
M: I know I can hardly remember it.
A: I remember they were really intense. They were very, very long days. I think we realized that we’d taken on a monster, and it was such a hard play to learn. We worked things quite rhythmically. We worked out how many steps it would take to do each moment. We were really stringent with the scripts and with Beckett’s notes, so there was a lot of repetition. I remember on lunch breaks and coffee breaks, that we didn’t really leave the room. We took it in turns to go and bring lunch in and run lines. We were all sharing apartments as well. We rehearsed it down in Galway, which isn’t where we live. So, it was a very intense time, but that was very satisfying to be able to devote 24 hours a day to a play. But it was really tough and intense. And repetitious – not monotonous – but repetitious. And a very funny time as well – tiring and funny. It was rewarding. There was a bit of it that I remember being quite scared of as well. I had to put that out of my head and just get on with the business of remembering the lines and remembering how to do the show, discovering what it was.
M: It was a new approach from most other stuff we had worked on. It requires a different muscle or something. Like a brain muscle. It requires a different thing that I hadn’t really used before. So, in that way, that’s brilliant. Because you realize there is another way to do plays, but it’s also scary the first time you’ve done it. It’s frustrating and infuriating and nerve wracking and all those things as well.
A: It was very playful as well. We took a lot of cues from Beckett in terms of what he was asking us to do physically, and we very much played around with that and responded to both each other and the text. So, it was a good, fun time for that as well.
M: And what Aaron was saying about going down to Galway to live and rehearse? That’s a very Druid thing. We often head down to Galway after like a week or two of rehearsing in Dublin where most of the actors live. Once we’re in Galway, it becomes the play every waking hour then. We just live the play that we’re working on at that point. It’s a very Druid approach.
You mentioned that you worked from the script and Beckett’s notes. Are his notes outside of the script?
A: Yeah, it was a German production that he worked on, and it was one of the last ones that he did – at the Berliner Ensemble, I think. We worked with the edits and the notes he made, because he edited the play a lot over the years. So, we stuck to that one, and it gave us a bit of insight into what he was trying to get at. In some ways it’s a very vague play. At parts of it, you are going, “What does that mean? What is that about?” So we worked quite closely with those notes and the text.
Do you have anything else you want audiences to know?
M: That you are allowed to laugh! We were just talking about it. I think his genius with the play is that true kind of comedy, that really simple, music hall, vaudevillian comedy that’s very traditional and old-fashioned, that puts us all in a very jovial mood, and we can laugh and giggle and recognize all of these different routines from decades ago that are very cemented in our culture now. And then all of a sudden, you get hit by something profound, and some kind of existential moment happens to you – always by accident. If you come and see it, you should allow it to happen to yourself, rather than beat yourself up whether you’re going to understand it or not. Don’t be afraid of it, just come and enjoy it.
A: Yeah, I think a lot of people have this idea that it’s going to be heavy and existential, and I think the more we do it, the more we realize Beckett’s having a lot of fun. I can hear him chuckling, and I think he’s inviting the audience to chuckle as well.
The Druid company is on tour. Next stop is Chicago.