Waiting for Godot
production by Reading Repertory Theatre at Reading College
Samuel Beckett was a ground breaking writer. His text challenged, head on, the accepted norm of what writing should be, he pushed boundaries, and so productions of his work should do the same, and if they can’t, they should at least let the text speak for itself. Beckett , done well, is a thing of dark, philosophical beauty.
Whilst the Beckett Estate imposes strict regulations on stage directions, there have been some innovative and well thought out stagings of his play in recent years. Reading Rep’s version of Waiting for Godot is, disappointingly, not one of them. It was, presumably, a well meant production, with care given to the set, props and costume. The performers are capable and consistent. Had this been produced by a more experienced director, it might have hit a powerful note. However there was something misplaced, all the way through.
My overriding feeling from this production was that it lacked a deep understanding of the text. Reading Rep specialise in text based theatre so I was surprised that they had misinterpreted the text in such a way. Whilst the nuances of any text are, of course open to interpretation, there are some indisputable messages. Waiting for Godot is about loneliness, despair and the fragility of the last chapter of life. The text is darkly funny, full of hopelessness and powerfully written. It needs space to sing its meaning to the audience. Without a proper understanding of the text, the power is easily lost. Reading Rep’s production found itself seated firmly in the slapstick, pantomime style humour, with little variation. Whilst the text is undoubtedly funny at times, it is very dark, and a jovial juvenile humour all the way through is an uncomfortable mismatch.
My concern with their production is summed up by director Paul Stacey’s note in the programme: “…the play is about two men, two people, two friends, waiting…Everyone has felt the sensation of waiting… The sensation is akin to feeling like you’re killing time, while doing so you may as well have fun. This is what Vladimir and Estragon do, they have fun.” This take on the play simply removes all the pathos, all the despair, and all the meaning. When Estragon utters the words ‘I’m unhappy’ he is in the midst of a breakdown; it is not a gag, he is not having fun.
The character Lucky however, performed by Brian Tynan, delivered his philosophical and surreal speech with true Beckett style, letting the words flow over the audience and seep in at the edges to administer their sting. This highlighted the disparity between the performances, which is not a reflection on the performers, but does suggest a lack of depth of understanding by the director.
The other frustration with this production is the age of the characters the performers were directed to play. Vladimir and Estragon are described in the text, fairly clearly, as elderly men. If a company chooses to innovate and not to portray them this way, which I would welcome, then it needs to be a deliberate and meaningful choice.
The recent production at the Arcola Theatre chose to cast young performers as the lead characters, and the entire production focused on this; swapping the famous bowler hats for baseball caps and hoodies, the lonely tree growing from some urban rubble. Whether it works or not, it is a clear and conscious choice. Reading Rep’s choice of actors seemed unconnected to the text they were staging. Had the direction enabled the performers to embody some aspect of ageing within the characters, or been a clearly deliberate choice to play the characters young, it could have worked. As it was, it felt as if they had simply glossed over one of the most important aspects of the play.
There were some strong directorial choices, one of which was the decision to present Pozzo as a stereotypical, physically demonstrative African man, played dynamically by Stephen Macaulay. This choice left me utterly confused, particularly when the two lead characters were performing with Irish accents. These accents felt like a tokenistic and somewhat misguided nod to the fact that Beckett was Irish. Had they performed with French accents this would have been a far more appropriate homage to the author, who wrote in French, and to the play’s references to their location in France.
The reason behind this decision was not communicated to the audience clearly enough. I would have preferred it if they had simply taken a step back and allowed the text to work its magic. We needed to be guided carefully through the fragments of dark humour and in and out of the bleak depths of despair. There were moments, particularly in the second half, where the performers were obviously trying to deliver the more emotive and desperate lines of the text with the intention that they deserved, but it was clear that they had little control over the audience’s reaction, with some chuckling whilst others looked moved or confused.
This leads me to mention the staging, which was also problematic. The set was well made and the lighting was appropriately stripped back and simple. However, staging a play in traverse, with the audience on both sides of the performance area is a bold choice, and as such it needs to be made for a reason. I couldn’t ascertain the reason here and the space was so small that the audience was as well lit as the performers. This was not only incredibly hot, but became a distracting backdrop to the action. I found myself watching the audience on the other side, rather than the performers, and also being conscious of how visible I was to them.
The audience were seated centimetres away from the performance space, and at times, centimetres away from the performers. This is the nature of the tiny studio space at Reading College, and could have been a really powerful tool. However, instead of acknowledging and responding to the space, using eye contact to challenge and confront the audience, or to speak directly to us, they stood in front of us and gazed off into an imaginary distance. With a tiny square room, surrounded on all sides, this was somewhat unbelievable. Never has the fourth wall felt so uncomfortable.
Had this been a young company with humble claims about their aims and experience, the production would have felt like an ambitious start that simply missed its goal a little. However, with rather large claims about their repertoire and quality in the programme and and on the website I was not expecting their interpretation of the text to be their downfall. I was, instead, expecting something, as they call themselves, ‘ground breaking’.
But, much like the sun’s repertory in Waiting for Godot, an endless futile cycle of day into night into day with nothing ever really happening, repertory theatre companies like these need to bring something fresh to text based theatre to prevent getting trapped in a similar pattern.
Shown at Reading College August 2014
This review originally appeared on the British Theatre Guide
photo credit James Corrall