July 28, 2006

Embracing Beckett


Waiting for Godot
By Samuel Beckett

State Theatre Company
Space, Adelaide Festival Centre
22 July, 2006.

Murray Bramwell

For a play about not getting anywhere, Waiting for Godot has gone a very long way. Written in Paris in 1949, last year marked the fiftieth anniversary of its first performance to somewhat puzzled audiences in London – two years after it had already perplexed the French. But if its metaphor of apparently futile waiting is ambiguous and riddling, the context of post-war uncertainty is not. The Theatre of the Absurd, and its attendant existentialist philosophy, aptly expresses that sense, in Europe after 1945, that the meaning of things needed to be rebuilt brick by brick. In imagining this, Waiting for Godot remains a singular classic and, a hundred years after his birth, Beckett’s reputation has only increased.

But, as time has passed, his status as an obscure writer has largely dissipated. Initially Godot was seen as a cryptic work. Within only a few years commentators were remarking that it was rather too obvious. Such is the impact of true originality – that it is eventually absorbed into consciousness as if it was always there. But the text also has become more accessible and that in part was due to Beckett himself. Many of the productions associated with him – including the famous San Quentin version – were excruciating in the lethargic repetitiveness of their performance. If it didn’t feel like you were slowly having your teeth pulled, it seemed, you weren’t experiencing the play.

Later, Beckett modified this approach, teaming up with the music hall comic Max Wall and encouraging much more of the Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton hat tricks and pratfalls that inspired the play in the first place. This is the cue State Theatre director Michael Hill has taken with his excellent staging of Waiting for Godot in the Space. There is a comic warmth in this version which identifies connection as much as alienation, and constancy even in tribulation – echoing Beckett’s own line : “stand up while I embrace you.”

Much is established with Victoria Lamb’s inventive décor. Her brief is a country road, a tree and a stone or two. But this is not a place of ash and desolation – her road is etched with railway tracks, the tree is a cruciform telegraph pole and, across the back of the acting area, a sweeping canvas cyclorama creates a painterly, burnished copper skyscape which is further accented in reds and golds by Nic Mollison’s careful lighting.

In their daggy brown jackets and dusty bowler hats, Stephen Sheehan and the ever-inventive Paul Blackwell astutely inhabit the contrasting personalities of Vladimir and Estragon –one the optimist and questioner, the other insecure, peevish, yet open-hearted. Both players take on the duets, set pieces and famous punchlines with panache, intelligence and gentle humanity. They are well supported by Jonathan Mill as the imperious Pozzo, Rory Walker (all pathos and pedantry as Lucky) and Harrison Dearing as Godot’s dutiful boy. Michael Hill has approached this text with good theatrical instincts and he and his team have brought a great play marvellously to life.

“Comic road to laurels” The Adelaide Review, No.297, July 28, 2006, p.16

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