Samuel Beckett’s existential masterpiece, “Waiting For Godot,” has been described as a play in two acts in which nothing happens – twice. That hasn’t stopped the sixty-five year flow of opinion, speculation, theory, and questions about its meaning. But Beckett himself was no help to his audiences, much less directors and actors. “All I knew, I showed,” he once said in response to the usual queries. Perhaps it would be simpler to chalk it up to what passes for philosophy these days – “It is what it is.” But what is it?
As performed by Ireland’s Druid Theatre Co., guests of the Shakespeare Theatre Co., “Waiting For Godot” is funny, precise, enigmatic, streamlined. The estate of Samuel Beckett does not allow directors to color too far outside the lines. After all, what he wanted, he wrote – nothing more and nothing less. That doesn’t mean there’s no room for depth in the narrow, closed world of Didi and Gogo – “small men locked in a big space.”
That “big space”, created by scenic designer Francis O’Connor, evokes barren, cracked-earth hopelessness in a way that more littered landscapes never could. There’s a rock of course – Gogo has to sit somewhere – and a tree. Not much of a tree, though, and certainly not a tree capable of holding the body of someone intent on hanging himself, as the two men occasionally discuss. But contrary to broad opinion, something does actually change from Act I to Act II: The tree sprouts three leaves.
Director Garry Hynes does what surely even Beckett would applaud – she uses what she’s given. With Aaron Monaghan as Estragon (Gogo) and Marty Rea as Vladimir (Didi), thin but rich veins of repartee full of non sequiturs, elusive references, and humor are opened. Resembling classic comic duos – Laurel and Hardy, Mutt and Jeff, etc. – our heroes suggest with their random but intense dialogue the positive and negative spaces of a moving sculpture. And because we are far from the field of naturalism, there is a choreographed simplicity built into each move, whether Gogo is taking off a shoe or Didi is scanning the horizon.
Then Lucky and Pozzo arrive. This review isn’t about rehashing the meaning of Lucky, beast of burden, obedient slave driven on the end of a rope by Pozzo, the martinet barking orders – or their reappearance in Act II with the chain of power broken, Pozzo blind and Lucky dumb. Theirs is the disturbing pairing of cold-bloodedness and unquestioning submission. Interpretations may be elusive, but the performances are solid.
Rory Nolan as Pozzo calls to mind the Mad Hatter – if the Mad Hatter were played by Mussolini. It’s a precise rendering and all the more admirable because we’re not the ones on the end of the rope. Garrett Lombard’s Lucky is everything you could wish for in a human pack mule, and when ordered to “Think!” produces a most astonishing stream of philosophical word salad gibberish – and a spontaneous eruption of applause from the audience.
It’s all to pass the time while Godot doesn’t come. The inescapable thought here is ‘futility.’ The young boy who brings the news that Godot won’t come today but will come tomorrow is played alternately by Malcolm Fuller and Harrison Wright. The boy is like a straw one clutches on an ocean of emptiness, for he knows Godot, and Godot knows that he is waited upon – and he will not come tomorrow. Night falls, and the first deep breath of beauty passes over the landscape as a pearl moon enters and the shadows turn blue.
“Waiting for Godot” is something of a dramatic Rorschach test. In spite of Beckett’s insistence that he wrote only what he knew, it’s nearly impossible not to superimpose one’s own meanings on it. Are we all just the Gogos and Didis of the world, the Luckys and Pozzos absorbed in the fleeting minutiae of our lives as we wait for something important to come? Or did Beckett, after serving years at the pleasure of James Joyce writing “Finnegan’s Wake”, determine that sanity compelled him to either write a play or hang himself?
There are no answers, only endlessly amusing speculations.
There is, however, an historical note of great interest. “…Godot’s” first doubtful arrival on the theatre scene in 1953 was met with puzzlement and derision. Not until a few influential critics took it seriously did the European public give it a second look. And when an inmate in a German prison translated the original French version into German, it was performed to great success in the prison.
In 1957, “Waiting For Godot” was performed at San Quenton for the hardest of the maximum security inmates, and it resonated. A play full of futility, meaninglessness, helplessness, waiting…and waiting. Critics and public alike may argue over its significance, but the prisoners got it.
WANT TO GO?
What: “Waiting For Godot”
Where: Shakespeare Theatre Co., Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th St. NW, Washington, D.C.
Call: (202) 547-1122 or visit ShakespeareTheatre.org
Playing through May 20