Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol – until 4 November 2017
Premiered in 1953 in France and 1955 in London Waiting for Godot was immediately dismissed by a majority of the London intelligentsia as a work of pretentious twaddle. After Harold Hobson and Kenneth Tynan flew to its rescue in the Sundays it soon found its place as a major work of 20th century theatrical canon. There’s no getting away from it, Beckett’s work about two tramps waiting for a titular character who never arrives is capital ‘C’ classic. However, like many of the greatest works of dramatic literature, the getting them right on stage is hard. The plays say so much, have so much historical baggage behind them, that a competent job in production- absolutely fine in 95% of cases- isn’t enough. The greatness of the text swallows the rote-ness of the staging.
So it is with Tobacco Factory Theatre’s production. Director Mark Rosenblatt has shifted the action into some vague 21st century context: his two tramps in a hotpotch of clothing, Estragon in baseball cap and ill-fitting t-shirt, his club foot dragging along behind him; Vladimir a more traditional look in his battered clothing and cap. Instead of a tree we get a metallic lamppost that magically spurts leaves in the second half. A wooden plank acts as a seesaw, tape is plastered across the floor like a crime scene. Janet Bird’s design is ugly and flat and it is a mistake. It takes away the magical realism of Beckett’s instructions and flattens the central focal point of the tree and consequently deadens the space. The actors are forced to work harder to conjure something as a result.
Yet the rhythms are just slightly off. I was blessed that my first Godot was Peter Hall’s 50th anniversary restaging, a work that showed this is a play whose magic is in the verbal music, that the patterns and rhythm that the characters find is everything. Halls production, long remembered and revised over countless years and experience hit every beat, pulse and pitch, a maestro with a world class orchestra at his disposal. Rosenblatt’s on the other hand has the same notes and score but cannot inject the final element into it. Hall knew the play was the star, the second time I saw it with Ian McKellen and the late great Roger Rees felt wrong, two stars taking advantage of a text to showcase themselves and losing in turn the sparkle of Beckett’s text. This one sits somewhere in between, yet at times feels like a lightweight (the production) boxing a super heavyweight (the text) in a fight it cannot hope to win.
Beckett asks a lot of his actors. They are required to have the soul of a poet and the lightness of foot of a clown. Although originally written and performed in French its influences are the music halls, pantomimes and vaudevilles of Britain. I have a sneaky suspicion that casting the work with stand ups would be more successful but when this was done in America with Steve Martin and Robin Williams, it flopped, so perhaps not. But in a 21st century staging it’s the knockabout comedy, the fart jokes and the hat routine that get the best response from its audience. The actors attack these routines with gusto but they’re not natural clowns and the laughs they raise are polite rather than uproarious.
It’s the structure that remains most fascinating here, two acts of six sequences that refract everything back to us. The boy who enters from stage left in Act One comes in from stage right in the second, Estragon grows frustrated with him in the first act, in the second it is Vladimir. Pozzo struts on as Lord and Master of Lucky in the first half, in the second he is sightless and relies on the kindness of his servant to guide him. Things shift incrementally. Is this the next day as the tramps posit or an indeterminate point in the future? Are they really just waiting by a tree or caught in a permanent state of purgatory? Beckett’s text is littered with mystery and symbolism, a work that will never reveal all its answers however much you shake at its tree. Each production needs to interrogate and answer these questions for itself. Rosenblatt never articulates his company’s discoveries to its audience. Maybe he feels he doesn’t need to. Yet the work remains murky and opaque as a result.
David Fielder feels most at home in this milieu, his Vladimir an ever hopeful optimist, a small boy trapped in an old man’s body and still convinced his pot of gold- in the form of Godot- will come. Estragon is a man of a different, younger, generation with a quick to rise temper that threatens to bubble over into proper violence. Colin Connor’s Irish tones paint the words in a way that shows Beckett works best when in the tongue of his fellow countrymen but he has a tendency to over push in the relative intimacy of the Tobacco Factory. This is not something that befalls TF veteran Chris Bianchi who starts Lucky’s famous state of consciousness address with precision and builds it up into a manic wail of desperation. It deserves the mid-scene applause it rendered. John Stahl, pimped up in bowler and fur cloak is a smooth, unpleasant Pozzo who finds himself, like Gloucester before him, given insight when he loses use of his eyes.
Now 65 years old it may not have the shock value it once did. Yet Waiting For Godot still challenges its audience with a work that eschews narrative for philosophical and theological rambling while chucking in old school variety for good measure. If this one didn’t really work for me it is still always a joy to wrestle with all its meaty complexity.