Waiting For Godot is one of the greatest plays of the twentieth century. It brings us face to face with what it means to be human, what it really means when you strip away all the distractions and consolations that we surround ourselves with, and it allows us no escape. Like Vladimir and Estragon we are also forced to wait, and even when we claim to be going somewhere we are still in the same place, still human, still faced with our own mortality. While this is undeniably bleak, especially given that Beckett does not allow his characters the consolation of faith in a divine being (there is a reason why Godot never turns up) and there are some searingly chilling statements and speeches, there is also great humour and absurdity in the human condition. Beckett is a fearless writer, and because he is prepared to face the reality of being human head on he is also able to show the absurdity behind our predicament and allow us to laugh along with the pain. Few writers have ever tackled this to such magnificent effect. It is scary stuff- not for the faint hearted- but if you allow yourself to feel the chill of the brevity of human life in speeches like:
“Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the gravedigger puts on the forceps.”
then you will feel the exhilaration of knowing that even in the face of that it is still possible to find joy.
“The tears of the world are a constant quantity. For each one who begins to weep somewhere else another stops. The same is true of the laugh. Let us not then speak ill of our generation, it is not any unhappier than its predecessors. Let us not speak well of it either. Let us not speak of it at all. It is true the population has increased.”
We are all waiting and we always have been, but people are still finding happiness, still loving. As Vladimir says in one of the plays most famous motifs, “there is nothing to be done.” What Beckett does, after showing us this reality, is celebrate the fact that the human spirit can carry on, driven by an inner strength and kindness in the face of tragedy and absurdity, and avoid despair. Vladimir and Estragon will be back again to wait as each new day dawns and however tedious and painful they may find it they will never give in. They may talk about hanging themselves but they won’t. There is something rather magnificent about that. They have accepted themselves and the reality of their situation in a way that Pozzo and Lucky, their “visitors” have not. Both Pozzo and Lucky are still fighting against the reality of their mortality, Pozzo by his cruelty and self obsession which gives him an illusion of control over his destiny, and Lucky by a mute acceptance which is a kind of blinkered anger, allowed release in only one terrifying burst showing us the horror of his interior turmoil when he allows it to surface.
Just these few thoughts will already make it clear to someone who is new to the play that this is not theatre for beginners. If you are going to put this one on stage you had better know exactly what you are doing or you are going to fall flat on your face. You can’t hide the fact that you don’t know what you are doing by extravagant scenery as Beckett stipulates that Vladimir and Estragon are waiting by a single tree, nor can you rely on flashy costumes, or improvisation. The dialogue is circular and choppy, cutting between the characters constantly, and it is built like a house of cards. If you want to succeed there is no alternative to simply understanding what the play is about. It’s a huge challenge and the only way to tackle it, particularly for the actors, is to jump in feet first and immerse yourself. Brave writing demands brave acting!
The 2012 production at the West Yorkshire Playhouse is a co- production with Talawa Theatre Company. Talawa is an all black theatre company but while there are added resonances in the play to be found from this fact, I am going to gloss over this aspect as Beckett is just about as universal a writer as you can get and the only thing that matters is being human. The cast are all extraordinary actors who understand exactly what they are doing. Jeffery Kissoon and Patrick Robinson are a fine pairing as Vladimir and Estragon. Their timing is great, very important for the vaudeville elements of the couple’s interaction, and they are both very expressive, able to make us feel pathos and humour in quick succession. There is a wonderful moment where they hug and then slowly extricate themselves unsure just what they may have done, and we can feel the history between two characters who have relied on each other and endured so much for so long.
Cornell S John and Guy Burgess were a revelation to me as Pozzo and Lucky, even though I know the play quite well and have seen it more than once. Cornell S John gave a performance of great style and attack which dug below the surface of the mindless cruelty of the character and allowed us to wonder at the reasons for it. As we saw more of him we were shown that it came from a compulsive need to control and dominate born out of his own sense of inadequacy and impotence in the face of despair. Guy Burgess as Lucky was both moving and terrifying in his stillness. His outburst of anger and despair was no surprise when Pozzo finally allowed him to speak. You had seen in his eyes from the moment he came on stage. A very fine actor indeed.
I am not going to forget Fisayo Akinade’s stage debut as the boy either. Being able to give a performance which is still and understated is not as easy as it seems and he has got off to a great start.
This was Ian Brown’s final production as director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse. He has given us ten very successful years and we have a lot to thank him for. I am glad that he will be back as a freelance director. I am sure that it is his guiding hand and understanding of the play which lies behind a lot of the things which I admired about this production. Not that you would notice. He has allowed his actors to shine as the best directors always do.
I find Waiting For Godot deeply moving, quite terrifying and sometimes very funny. This production was able to give me that. I couldn’t really ask for more.