June 30, 2006

Hats off to Samuel Beckett

Filed under: Archive,Interviews


Murray Bramwell talks with director, Michael Hill, in week three of rehearsals, about State Theatre’s up-coming production of Waiting For Godot

Waiting For Godot is probably the most famous play of the 20th century . Written over six weeks in 1949, it made a legend of its author, Samuel Beckett, when first performed in Paris in 1953 and its reputation spread when it opened in London and New York two years later. Described by Martin Esslin as a leading example of The Theatre of the Absurd, Godot features two tramps who wait on a lonely road to meet someone called Godot who sends an emissary, but never arrives – at least not within the duration of the play – and so the men keep waiting. Comic, cryptic, full of humanity and loaded with cosmic doubt, Waiting for Godot is a challenge to both performers and audiences- and it is presently in the hands of Michael Hill, winner of the 2005 Critics’ Circle Individual Award and, this year, appointed Associate Director at State Theatre.

When Michael Hill took up his job at State, Artistic Director, Adam Cook asked him for a wish-list of plays he’d like to direct and Godot was at the top.

“It’s a play I’ve always wanted to tackle. It spoke to me as a young person still in high school – I saw a production at Theatre 62 in the early Eighties and then I saw the San Quentin production two years later at the 1984 Adelaide Festival. I think it is such a universal play and I was very happy when Adam said ‘let’s do it.’ The company has never produced it before, and this is the centenary of Beckett’s birth – so it seems like the perfect time to present it.”

Hill started on this production nearly a year ago and reports that all his first choices for casting were available – Paul Blackwell and Stephen Sheehan feature as Vladimir and Estragon and Jonathan Mill and Rory Walker play Pozzo and Lucky. After months of reading – biographies, Beckett’s fiction, and letters relating to previous productions, Hill has now turned his attention to his own take on the text.

“The paradox of producing Godot is to what extent do we leave it open and embrace the ambiguity, and to what extent do we make distinct choices about intention and make it clear and easy. Finding that balance is important. A lot of reading I did helped me find out how I didn’t want to do it. If you have two leads competing for laughs all the time – that defeats the purpose of the play and negates the whole lyrical and metaphysical layer of the play.”

The Beckett estate sets strict guidelines for performances – stipulating no music for instance, and no additions to the text. But, as Hill observes – “It is on the one hand very restrictive, but also amorphous. It says no changes or additions yet the text says ‘A country road. Evening. A tree.” It could be anything – so it is a strange thing to try to tie down. It could be any kind of tree and any kind of road – and, without giving too much away, our designer, Victoria Lamb has not gone for a typical kind of road, but it is a road nonetheless.”

Another aspect to consider in Waiting for Godot, with its fragmentary, repetitive dialogue and clownish capering, is how much does it have a psychological dimension ?

“it is a question I asked myself for twelve months,” admits Michael Hill. “We spoke about back-story in the first week of rehearsals and quickly came to the conclusion that we would go round in circles if we spent too long on that .There are so many deliberate contradictions in the text and deliberate doubts and confusions – particularly for Vladimir. My feeling is that Vladimir particularly seeks order. If there is a protagonist, someone the audience can relate to, it is him, because he is trying to understand what is happening.

“Having discussed that, we are focusing a lot more on the rhythm of the text and the routines, as we call them. They are music hall routines –influenced by Chaplin and Keaton – but they have been subverted. We are going from the outside in, with this production. My feeling is that if we spent too long talking about it we would get to week four and still be talking. We needed to find a physical and musical way into it and focus on the relationships.”

For Michael Hill Godot remains what he calls “a bizarre archetype for drama. Anyone who watches the play will have their own interpretation. I read that after the first New York production someone remarked that the play is like a living Rorschach test, a projection exercise – it says more about the audience themselves and their own psychology.”

Some productions of the play have made much of those stage directions –pause and silence. I asked Hill how arduous the production should be ?
“There is point in the play when Vladimir says –‘This is getting really insignificant’ and Estragon replies –‘Not enough !’ My feeling is there are moments when that needs to happen, but if it happens too often it loses its power. So you need the light and shade.”

And what does the director want audiences to bring to this production ? –
“An open mind and a sense of anticipation. Be prepared for anything and to interpret it how you like. If there is an openness to the play, audiences will receive a reflection of themselves. They will also look at the human experience from a unique angle and see the compassion and the bloody-mindedness of people all at the same time.”

And how is the director faring ? “I am definitely enjoying it – and grappling with it. But if I wasn’t grappling with it, something would be wrong. If I wasn’t finding each day a real challenge, and going home and thinking – ‘there must be a better way to communicate that idea !’ ”

“Hills’ balancing act” The Adelaide Review, No.295, June 30, 2006, p.13.

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