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Waiting for Godot

25 April 2009 (Studio 54)

It would not be surprising to learn that Waiting for Godot, rumors to the contrary notwithstanding, is in fact a theatre piece written to order for the four actors currently performing it at Roundabout's Studio 54. So perfectly do the roles of Vladimir, Estragon, Pozzo and Lucky suit the bodies and skills of Bill Irwin, Nathan Lane, John Goodman and John Glover that the very "argument" of the play "nothing happens" begins to look like their collaborative idea of high-end entertainment. What a formidable challenge that is, "nothing happens." Isn't the actor's deepest fear the nightmare of drying up, or forgetting not just lines but scenes? What if there is nothing to remember, no point? Forget what a playwright might have meant to say with his lines of dialogue and stage directions. Let's see how brilliant actors withstand the play's deep insult to their craft.

We cannot really grasp what "nothing happens" would be like, and Samuel Beckett's play is hardly concerned with theoretical possibilities. Even when nothing happens, the mind ticks on, relentlessly conscious. Much of childhood consists of enduring the happening of nothing much. Children respond by pretending that something is happening I'll be the prince, and you be the pauper. It is difficult for sane adults to take refuge in such fantasy. Adults, after all, are supposed (not least by children) to make things happen. In the end, though, adult action can look a lot like playing for real. I'll build the Suez canal and you float your oil tankers through it. Most people, of course, lack the means to take action or to play for real. Steering between pretense (I'm playing) and delusion (I'm not playing), they settle for a blinkered consciousness that registers as little as possible the nothing that is happening.

You could, I suppose, regard Waiting for Godot as a thought experiment: what happens when two ordinary blokes find themselves stuck in a world where nothing happens. This would be the play that nobody wants to see, the byword for theatrical ennui that I have carried around in one of my pockets ever since I learned about the supposed "absurdity" of Waiting for Godot. Or, as a more interesting alternative, you could watch the show as a circus, one in which four brilliant clowns acrobats of commedia dell'arte attempt the daredevil trick of demonstrating what happens when nothing happens.

You have the two blokes, waiting for Godot someone who, as a rule, never shows up. For contrast, you have a man of action, Pozzo, who can make things happen but whose actions, in a world where nothing happens, are senseless. Finally, you have the hapless slave, more dog than man, for whom nothing happens despite all the bad things that happen to him, because he lives in a (wretched) eternal present. How can four actors, four great clowns, dramatize a situation that is as barren of drama as the rocks at the back of the stage? Only one thing is asked of the audience: the very absurd demand that one not ask why the actors have set themselves this task. That's to say that the audience must bear in mind that Waiting for Godot is not an allegory waiting to be unpacked by interpretation. It is a show. It is the "let's put on a play!" equivalent of a high-wire act, played absolutely without a net.

You don't demonstrate nothing happening by pretending that something is happening. You demonstrate it by showing the pretending to be unsustainable. Mr Irwin is magnificent at this. Every time one of the little diversions that Vladimir and Estragon pursue winds down, we realize that we have forgotten that nothing is happening, because Mr Irwin's ambiguous bursts of interest have distracted us from eventlessness. Estragon is hungry; Vladimir feeds him a carrot then, suddenly, the eating of a carrot has both happened (we saw it) and not happened (nothing has changed). The little things that seem to happen every now and then are immediately sucked into the black hole of the play's lack of event. It is almost heavy-handed of Beckett to render his characters' confusion about events (did they happen? was I here yesterday?) explicit. Mr Irwin's Vladimir remains hopeful about making a deal with the world; in exchange for good behavior, Vladimir will be allowed to play playing for real for real. It can't happen, of course, but the constant shifts in Mr Irwin's extremely tentative persona, between optimism and opportunism, produce flickers of event that we take for the real thing every time.

Mr Lane's way with the more sympathetic Estragon is another case of wearing a role like a skin. The actor has a knack for making characters funny simply by irradiating them with the desire to be somewhere else, and to be somewhere, anywhere else is all that Estragon wants. It is Estragon's disappointment with the assignment of waiting for Godot that we so vividly don't want to share. Mr Lane protects us with a thin but firm veneer of tetchy impatience that calls Jackie Gleason to mind. Although he makes us laugh, Mr Lane does not for a moment attempt to squeeze a gag from upstaging his gentler-looking colleague. For veteran theatre-goers, the revelation of Nathan Lane's Estragon will come later, long after the final curtain.

John Goodman's specialty is the impersonation of id-driven minds that are altogether untroubled by conscience. With Pozzo, he carries this trick one step further, and demonstrates the utter witlessness of amorality. If there is a really big stunt in this production of Godot, it is Mr Goodman's ability to endow the sweaty, gigantically corpulent monument to entitlement the insubstantiality of a hologram.

The most terrifying performance of all the sword swallower is Mr Glover's. His Lucky is a snarling attack dog whose speech is an utterly detached activity, a matter of logorrheic loops of intellectual nonsense. The skin on Mr Glover's face looks like a cunningly arranged illusion: we know that the actor is actually nothing but a skeleton. His whole performance is a Dance of Death that has been choreographed by the hounds of hell.

Under no circumstances do I want to convey the impression that this production is, against all odds, fun to watch, or "entertaining" in the conventional sense. Nor does it plumb the depths of the human condition or of any other vitreous porcelain contraption. It does not have "redeeming" or "hopeful" things to say about the futility of human existence. But it is a great show, an event of theatrical syzygy that's unlikely to be repeated anytime soon.

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