Walter D. Asmus
The celebrated Dublin Gate Theatre staging of Waiting for Godot has been revived as part of the Barbican’s Beckett Centenary Festival. Sometimes called ‘definitive’, Walter D. Asmus’s production premiered in 1988; since then it has toured around the world (with the same cast since 1991), including the complete Beckett season at the Barbican in 1999. But it has certainly not grown stale with age.
For a work now over half a century old, Godot‘s timelessness and, indeed, universality remain intact. Easily the most influential play since the war, its fatalistic stoicism still seems to comment relevantly on (that over-used term) the human condition.
Life may be meaningless and absurd but there is something courageous and even heroic about the way Beckett’s characters battle to keep their hopes alive. And Beckett’s compassionate humour means that the total effect is not one of nihilistic despair.
A tragicomedy in two acts with virtually no plot, Godot was once famously described as “nothing happens, twice.” On two successive evenings, a pair of tramps, Vladimir (Didi) and Estragon (Gogo), wait next to a tree by the side of a country road for a mysterious figure called Godot who does not turn up. A boy messenger tells them “he will surely come tomorrow.” Their ennui is relieved by banter and bickering, and by the double appearance of the grandiose Pozzo and his slave Lucky, but the overall sense is of circular repetition rather than moving forward.
Although originally written in French (and then translated into English by Beckett himself), there is something about the wit and rhythm of Didi and Gogo’s dialogue which is particularly well suited to an Irish production like this. Barry McGovern and Johnny Murphy make a great double act, capturing the ‘blarney’ perfectly, while fully exploiting the music-hall elements, especially in the Laurel and Hardyesque bowler-hat swapping sequence.
They are very much an old couple who have probably been trading the same observations and jokes for years. Despite Gogo’s occasional half-hearted suggestion that they separate, they are touchingly dependent on each other for surviving the boredom and depression, the fears and doubts, which oppress them while they wait interminably to be ‘saved’ by Godot. McGovern’s Didi is the more optimistic, restless one, who comforts Gogo but is subject to sudden panic attacks, while Murphy’s lethargically resigned Gogo takes grim satisfaction from gallows humour.
Alan Stanford’s plummily English-accented Pozzo at once suggests a member of the Anglo-Irish landowning class and a ham actor-manager. With his larger-than-life personality, he is always performing a part and unable or unwilling to consider the feelings of others. Stephen Brennan’s ironically named Lucky, as his almost permanently bowed beast of burden, seems to bear the suffering of the whole world on his shoulders.
Society may be divided into the oppressors and the oppressed but in Beckett’s bleak world, where we “give birth astride a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more,” we are all victims. The only question is do we laugh or cry at the absurdity of it all?