Waiting for Godot – Voted the most important play of the 20th Century, in the English language, by the UK’s National Theatre in 1998. Samuel Beckett originally wrote the play in French in 1948, which he later translated into English. Famously it’s a play where nothing happens, it’s theatre of the absurd, showing human existence through meaningless dialogue, confusing situations and a plot without purpose.
However, it has played to audiences around the world and has been studied by drama students since it debuted. I entered the theatre not knowing what to expect and came away not fully comprehending what I saw. It has taken a few days for me to absorb and think about the show. Perhaps it’s a testament to the quality of the production that it stayed with me, rolling over in my mind as I waited for it to make sense!
The show, playing at the Eleventh-Hour Theatre in Fitzroy, is an intimate performance, in a converted church.
For anyone new to this play, we are introduced to two characters Vladimir and Estragon (excellently played by John Jacobs and William Henderson) who are waiting for the arrival of someone named Godot. As they wait, they engage in a variety of discussions and pass the time behaving almost like a music hall double act, almost Laurel and Hardy like, complete with bowler hats. Their costumes are Chaplin-esque, and one assumes they are tramps. This portrayal seems to have become a standard for staging the play, although Beckett never stipulated this in his original text.
It’s s play in two acts where Vladimir and Estragon encounter a couple of men, Pozzo and Lucky (Richard Bligh and Tom Considine) who stop for a while and talk.
The simplicity of the story could have been the basis for a slapstick silent movie back in the early days of cinema. The dialogue is almost Shakespearian in parts, often breaking the fourth wall.
The set is simple, yet stunning, and has been lovingly created by Julie Renton. A weeping willow tree dominates one corner of the stage, it’s leaves covering the floor. A hilly landscape sits against a most beautiful sky and provides the perfect backdrop allowing us to focus on the actors.
John Jacobs and William Henderson first performed the role in 1976, and are now reprising their roles forty-one years later. They both gave equally strong performances in a show that relies heavily on the strength of the actors, not only in how they deliver lines, but in their actions, expressions and emotions which often speak louder than the dialogue. Henderson directed this production and there is a sense of familiarity and ease in their roles.
When asked what the show was about, Samuel Beckett answered, “It’s all symbiosis” and on reflection, the show’s strength lies in the relationships between the characters.
Vladimir and Estrogen seem to genuinely care for each other. When they bicker, they need to feel the embrace of the other to feel better. They could easily be a same sex couple, who are in their twilight years of companionship. We know that despite the many threats to separate, they never have and they probably never will. They are reliant on each other and responsible to each other.
The relationship between Pozzo and Lucky is that of Master and mercilessly abused slave, almost masochistic in form. Pozzo dominates Lucky. He carries a whip, threatens, degrades and makes the subservient Lucky perform, yet is reliant on Lucky throughout.
It is a peculiar show, almost part tragedy, part comedy. It’s also fascinating that within something where so little actually happens, there is so much to explore.
Waiting for Godot is a production by Henderson’s new company, Wits’ End at Eleventh Hour Theatre, Fitzroy, November 23 to December 16.