Originally published 30 April, 2010
My theatre companion and I are currently trying to get through burgers the size of our heads before we attend this evening’s performance of Waiting for Godot. It’s been a long week, and we’ve spent the last half an hour whinging at each other about work. There’s a pause in the conversation and a thought rises to the surface: ‘I’m not sure if I really want to sit through Beckett tonight,’ I proclaim with a sigh.
This is nothing against the Queensland Theatre Company production team. Joe Mitchell, the director, has already proven he’s a deft hand with Beckett in the past. The line-up of the cast is tremendous, and I’ve heard nothing but good things. But I’m slightly hesitant because I’ve fallen victim to the most common misconception held around Beckett: that I’ll leave the theatre wanting to kill myself. A synopsis of Waiting for Godot reads like a guaranteed boring night out. Most beautifully described as the play where ‘nothing happens, twice’, the play concerns itself with two men waiting for the mysterious Godot to show up. And that’s it.
Chances are if you read this blog you’re already familiar with the play. When I go along to the performance, which is part of Queensland Theatre Company’s Education Performance season, the audience is mostly made up of high school students. I’m still not entirely convinced that secondary school kids should study Beckett. My first contact with him wasn’t until university, and even then I feel like I only scratched the surface. I remember my lecturer summarizing her own position after an hour-long tute filled with frustratingly recursive debate about what Godot could possibly mean. ‘Go to a nursing home,’ she said, ‘or wait until you lose a parent, or are forced to care for a sick family member. Then you’ll get Beckett.’ As time goes on, I begin to understand more and more what she means.
I thought Beckett was a genius at university, but I haven’t spent a whole lot of time with him since. A few years on, with a bit more experience under my belt and hair on my chest, his work takes on a whole new meaning. So I can’t help but wonder how much the high school kids really take in. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to understand the play’s beauty and grace when I was in school. I just wasn’t ready. I can’t wait to see it in another three years and discover new layers again.
My initial hesitancy is a common mistake. What you realise within minutes of … Godot is that Beckett was a wonderful comedian. The play is absolutely hilarious.
What you realise within minutes of … Godot is that Beckett was a wonderful comedian. The play is absolutely hilarious.
This is a revelation obviously not lost on Mitchell, who has managed to assemble a cast that has you in stitches. The broad physical comedy collides with Beckett’s nonsensical wit to create a truly compelling, entertaining and moving performance. Eugene Gilfedder and Bryan Probets are astonishingly good. They never dare ask you for the laugh, but subtly play inside Beckett’s void to give it a whimsy that you don’t expect. Supported by Martin Blum and Johnathan Brand, the ensemble cast manage to make Beckett look easy. This is no mean feat.
and Bryan Proberts are astonishingly good. They never dare ask you for the laugh, but subtly play inside Beckett’s void to give it a whimsy that you don’t expect. Supported by Martin Blum and Johnathan Brand, the ensemble cast manage to make Beckett look easy. This is no mean feat.
The technical sides to the production are sound and unsurprising. An obligatory Absurdist theatre crescendo of white noise pulls us in and out of the action as we transition between acts. The lighting subtly changes as day turns into night. The costumes are mostly unremarkable but the set is particularly clever. It’s an awkward, asymmetrical space that’s surprisingly small. It manages to occupy the Billie Brown Studio like an imposing monolith. It strikes just the right balance between a restrictive space and a playful one, assisting the comic action.
As I leave the theatre, my initial caution has dissolved. I’m left uplifted. The piece’s comedy means that it’s suggestion of vast emptiness is accompanied by a joy that is liberating. Beckett shrugs his shoulders at us and says, ‘so life is meaningless. Want a carrot?’ This is a similar mood to when I left Thom Pain from the very same studio earlier in the year. Good Absurdity actually leaves you feeling happy, not suicidal. This is why Beckett has escaped the pantheon of extreme playwrights left to be enjoyed only by university theatre students.
Good Absurdity actually leaves you feeling happy, not suicidal. This is why Beckett has escaped the pantheon of extreme playwrights left to be enjoyed only by university theatre students.
(I’m thinking of Artaud and friends. They are not attempting Beckett’s Absurdism of course, but deliberately worked against our expectations of theatre and story, just as Beckett did. When was the last time you saw a main stage company do Artaud in Australia?) Waiting for Godot has managed to leap into the popular culture canon alongside Mother Courage and Hamlet because of its comedy. It’s why the work attracts such names as Bill Irwin, Robin Williams and, most recently, Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen.
But perhaps I’m more alone than I think in my existential joy. As we’re walking out, a stranger in front of me says to his friends: ‘I feel like hanging myself now.’ His companions agree. I must admit, I snuck out of the theatre before the question and answer session. Although the teenage audience may have surprised me with their insight, I was doubtful. But I certainly wonder about the middle-class office worker or the high school student, who have never seen Beckett. Do they sigh with the same hesitancy that I did over my dinner? What on earth would they think of this production? I’m always insecure that the theatre industry falls into a habit of just entertaining itself.
Mitchell’s made … Godot accessible as it possibly can be.
For whatever it’s worth, Mitchell’s made … Godot as accessible as it can possibly be. The show is funny, compelling, rich, moving and is a wonderful achievement. I can only hope the majority of the young audience feel the same way.
GUEST POST: David Burton is a playwright, lecturer in children’s and young people’s theatre (USQ), and the Director of the Empire Youth Theatre in Toowoomba. David’s latest work Captain Pathos and his Army of Imaginary Friends appears in this year’s USQ Children’s Theatre Festival, following his acclaimed Spirits in Bare Feet for last year’s Festival. His one-man play Furious Angels will premiere as part of the Metro Arts Independent season later this year. Dave is also working on the commissioned April’s Fool for the Empire Theatre; this new work premieres in August before an extensive tour of Queensland. In 2009, his award-winning work Lazarus Won’t Get Out of Bed was produced by AS Theatre, and played a season at Metro Arts in Brisbane. Other work includes The Bachelor Prophecies (2007) and Smashed (2008). Follow him on Twitter @dave_burton