The Theatre Royal Haymarket Company have launched their celebrated production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot at the Comedy Theatre in Melbourne, the first stop on a three-month tour through Australia and New Zealand.
Ian McKellen (Estragon) and Roger Rees (Vladamir), beaming in their evening rags, bring each a bindle full of tenderness to Beckett’s famously sparse farce, sharing it out liberally in one of the fondest and most engaging visions of old Sam Bellyache’s bleakly metaphysical bus stop you’re ever likely to see. Together with Matthew Kelly (Pozzo) and Ronald Pickup (Lucky), they bounce about the big Comedy Theatre stage, riffing and jigging, a most comfortable quartet, comfortable with the profundity, comfortable with the absurdity, and comfortable with each other.
The play itself, of course, is a theatrical oracle: an infinite metaphysic bound to a null ethic; a definite art within an absent form. A problem. Like a Delphic prophecy, it can mean anything and nothing. But in striving to communicate this irresolvable condition, in striving to attain the ecstatic incoherence promised by the text, most productions stumble into the turgid gloom of significance. Oh, Beckett. They give birth astride a grave, the light gleams an instant then it’s night once more. Yikes. Make some room up there — that bough might break for Didi, but I’m pretty sure it’ll hold me. I even brought some rope.
But not so here. The advantage of Sean Mathias’s radiant production is that it does not directly concern itself with the play as an enigma, but rather with the play as a play, with what it is, rather than what it means. And while Waiting for Godot can mean anything, it can be only one thing: a farce.
Farce is a very pure kind of theatre. It is the original theatre. To tell a joke is to put life on a stage. This way of organising life in art, this artistic imperative to incite laughter, to laugh at life, resonates throughout Beckett’s oeuvre, but perhaps nowhere as distinctly as in Waiting for Godot.
To this farcical end, Mathias gives generous space to the comic talents of his actors. Good farce is always a rigorous physical discipline requiring virtuosity, and McKellen and Rees are nothing if not virtuosic: two porkbelly vagabonds that guarantee satisfaction (yes, yes, I know — Godot brings out the Godawful puns, but punning is really the most serious, sensible and just response a critic can have to Beckett). Is there too much pork? Too much ham? I don’t know if there could ever be too much ham when the talent is this large. The business with the hats, for instance, was so excellent of itself that I almost wept.
The production does retain a little of Godot’s famous literary poignancy in its design. Pure farce, the farce described by Beckett — sadistic, cruel, life as an endless comedy routine, the same joke told over and over — is ultimately an empty form, a mere physical frame, a blank, a ruined stage, bare of props and painted scenes. Farce, after the laughter, is a melancholic thing. This is what designer Stephen Brimson Lewis brings to the production. He shows us the ruin, setting the play in a decrepit music-hall, romantically imagined. The walls are collapsing, the stage rising at odd angles, the balconies are mouldering and the infamous tree has literally cracked the boards, bursting up through the rubble. After the laughter of the music hall, then the sadness, the empty ruined stage. This is the source of that characteristic barrenness by which Beckett depicts all human relations as grotesque, hilarious and futile, the font of all his poignancy.
But still, having said all of that, despite the poignancy, the virtuosity, the gorgeous set, the sharp lighting, still, despite everything, it’s still Waiting for Godot and still nothing happens. Twice. As always, even in this production, there are those moments, just past the middle way of both acts, when the laughter seems to drop away that little bit more abruptly, when you start to notice the seats around you creaking as punters shift about awkwardly. And there’s still that moment during the interval when you wonder if you really need to sit through the second half just to see the same thing (not) happen again.
What I’m saying is that even if you’ve got a Knight of the Realm up there exercising his royal right to totally slay us all, Godot is always going to be a challenge and something of a chore. But here’s the thing: a lot of that unpleasantness is to do with audience expectations. Why must we come to it so seriously, so stuffily, so choked by the black turtleneck of bourgeois introspection?
What I think we need to do — we being everyone that was shifting in their seats at the Comedy Theatre last Saturday night — is to treat Waiting for Godot more as a Midnight Movie, like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It should be a community experience. It should be something you can take a date to for a guaranteed good time.
Here’s what I propose: Dating for Godot: A Four Step Guide.
1) Costume. Leave the cocktail blacks at home. Dress trampy. Just like Sue Blane’s costumes are lovingly recreated by Time Warp nuts, arthouse Godotites must similarly bring the love. Wear a crumpled bowler. Tear the collar from your shirt. Don’t shower. Grow a beard. Chew tobacco and spit in the aisle. 2) Call backs. Everyone likes call and response. Waiting for Godot is crammed full of questions just begging for answers. So shout them out. For example:
The best thing would be to kill me, like the other.
Barthes. (Or perhaps some recently deceased celebrity instead.)
3) Participation. Beckett I think invites participation. At evenly spaced intervals in Godot, there are metatheatrical nods which seem to intend bringing the audience into proceedings. A good start would be, I think, to hurl smuggled Jaffas at the stage after any of these overt gestures. For example:
All the same … that tree … (turning towards the auditorium) … that bog …
(Hisses and throws Jaffas.)
That symbolises neatly our traditional hostility to audience participation and gives us something to develop during future performances. 4) Drinking game. For this you need to smuggle a hobo’s hipflask. Every time Godot is mentioned by any of the actors, sip and pass the flask to your date. Every time Vladimir says “we’re waiting for Godot”, sing out with him, take two hits, then pass it on. When finally it’s Estragon’s turn to utter the eponymous phrase, well, à l’enfer, whoever is left holding the flask must finish it.
That’s just a start, but it needs a generous crowd, the right venue and a performance in the right vein. I don’t think we’ll get a better opportunity than this one. So the challenge is out there, people. What are you waiting for?
The details: Waiting for Godot plays Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre until May 22 — tickets are still available from Ticketek. The show opens in Perth on May 28, Adelaide on June 9 and Sydney on June 15 before touring to New Zealand.
*More “reviews” of Melbourne Theatre to be found at Neandellus