Waiting for Godot at the Edinburgh Lyceum

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The more things stay the same, the more significant a minor change becomes. The bareness of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot – both in terms of its minimal scenery and unfleshy script – and the rigid adherence to that script demanded by the Beckett estate mean that any production becomes most notable for its deviations from the default ur-Godot which one visualises when reading the play on the page.

This production, at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre and starring Brian Cox and Bill Paterson, began by tacking very close to the script indeed. The stage arced steeply backward and upwards from the audience. Both ground and walls were starkly white, fading at the edges in crisp, grey gradients. This starkly foregrounded the tree (What is it? / I don’t know. A willow / Where are the leaves? / It must be dead) and the two central characters, Cox’s Didi and Paterson’s Gogo. The beautifully realised aesthetic was as Beckettian as the craggy face and swept-back grey hair of the playwright’s own appearance: bleak, piercing, monochrome.

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But as Cox staggered forwards across the set, a comical piss-stain spread across his trousers to draw awkward titters from the crowd, the ethos of this performance of Godot began to reveal itself. In the 2001 RTÉ ‘Beckett on Film’ Godot (an excellent stab at staging that ‘default’ Godot from which other takes may deviate), Barry McGovern’s Didi was a vagrant: but a vagrant whose philosophising, whose desperate eloquence in his attempts to justify another day alive, seemed his own. Cox’s Didi took the same eloquence and made it seem clownish, like the drunken ramblings of Rab C. Nesbitt.

The critic David Lloyd, in an article aligning Beckett’s writing with the painting of Jack B. Yeats, wrote that these artists:

[made] space once more for the recalcitrant, for figures of those who had been denied representation: the tramps, rogues and derelicts that populate both artists’ works [1]

In the Lyceum production, this representation retreated somewhat, offering a version of Godot that played heavily upon the script’s comedy rather than its tragedy, and thereby sundering the co-dependence of these aspects in the script. The last version of Godot I saw, with Sir Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in the lead roles, could be accused of something similar; but this at least was a laughing-with, a strangely warm and comradely Beckett. The Lyceum production veered worrying into laughing-at.

The character of Pozzo was a case in point. Pozzo, who calls his leashed manservant ‘Hog’ and laments that he does not own the right-of-way through his land, is a ridiculous figure in the script. No more ridiculous than Didi and Gogo, but perhaps no less so either. This Pozzo, played by John Bett, was stern and Tory and stentorian. His crying fit was passed over with great haste; his general air reassuring and authoritarian. The class divisions in the play were painted strongly; but given Beckett’s tendency to place the dispossessed at the existential/experiential core of his work, it was surprising how strongly this performance seemed to favour rather than undermine the existing class hierarchy.

All of this pertains most strongly to the longer first act of the play. In the second act, Cox’s Didi grew in emotional sincerity. Paterson’s Gogo, whose withdrawn reticence made him seem aloof to Didi in the opening act, became more clearly the frustrated expression of a terrified loneliness. And when Pozzo re-emerges, he is blind.

This was in many ways an improvement. On the whole, the second half was stronger than the first. But writing difference between the acts of Godot radically restructures the play. When Didi grows from a rambling buffoon to an almost fatherly presence, you have character development. The arc of narrative. As hard as it is to separate the ethos of the play from what I want the ethos of the play to be, I think this is an unBeckettian rendering. Vivian Mercier famously called Godot ‘a play in which nothing happens, twice’. With the insertion of character development between the acts, something happens. In writing a play in which nothing happens, Beckett frustrated the audience’s expectation for what the critic Catherine Belsey has named ‘Classic Realism’: the consoling, predictable narrative form in which:

the story moves inevitably towards closure which is also disclosure, the dissolution of enigma through the re-establishment of order, recognizable as a reinstatement or a development of the order which is understood to have preceded the events of the story itself. [2]

But here, that frustration was tempered – and with it the play’s hauntingly static effect was diminished; the inertia which underpins the whole premise dispelled. This effect was replaced by something more accessible, perhaps more immediately enjoyable, but less potent.

This Lyceum production of Godot was impressive in its way – certainly the scenery and the charisma of the actors. It also had the disquieting aspects detailed above. These last are particularly fascinating as an example of the power that performance has over even an unaltered script. The Beckett estate may demand that the stage directions are followed exactly, but they cannot control the tone of command in Pozzo’s demands, or the level of pathos in Gogo’s opening wail: ‘Nothing to be done’.

As the actors took their bows, Cox hushed the audience and dedicated the show to the playwright Brian Friel, who had passed away the night before. It was a classy, respectful note to close a production of inconsistent value.

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References:

[1] Lloyd, David. ‘Republics of Difference: Yeats, MacGreevy, Beckett’. Third Text 19:5 (Sept 2005). 461–474. London: Routledge. Web. 27 May 2015.

[2] Belsey, Catherine. Critical Practice. 2nd ed. 1980. London: Routledge, 2002. Print. New Accents.

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