Talking of sweet nothings has never been so enticing.
A chronology of the more interesting events from Samuel Beckett’s novel of the same name, Watt chronicles the human condition in an avant-garde presentation of the ironic camaraderie of nihilism and reasoning. Telling the story of a man becoming manservant becoming man again, Watt details the cycles of thought that trigger in his mind in a sophisticated outflow as he experiences the transitions and movements in his life. Written eloquently and ambiguously, the novel-turned-play intellectualises the ideas of how everything happens for the sake of just happening, and how a conversation could probably survive without a conversation for it has already died by the time it has left one’s lips. In an almost post-modern progression, we are reminded that doing nothing is still doing something, and that everything that is not also is. Confused yet? And so you should be.
With the script comprising of snippets from the Beckett novel and selected by our stand-alone Irish actor Barry McGovern, the audience are taken through vignettes of moments from the life of Watt, the soon-to-be and soon-to-not-be servant of Mr. Knott, of whom Watt rarely sees in Knott’s own homestead. From the moment he gets off the train to the moment he gets back on, we follow Watt’s endeavours and inner dialogue as he observes the world around him, always changing and always something. With wit and wisdom, Watt takes us on a pilgrimage of thought, detailing his daily routines and his spontaneous interactions with a keen interest in pulling it apart as something and reconstructing it as a nothing – that is also a something. The exploration of the human condition through the characters and their empty experiences comes as both an anxiety of what we attribute superficial value to and a relief of what ultimately does not matter. It is both weighted and weightless in its exposition.
Director Tom Creed takes on the challenge of the one-hour, one-man monologue with loyalty to the novel and its complicatedly-explored simplicities. In a minimalist setting with minimalist themes, one could argue that the direction was very consistently move-stop-stand-speak with never a moment of energy in the direction on stage; however, with the character’s nature and those very “nothing” themes, it provides part of the charm behind Mr. Watt, never distracting the audience with more than one thing at a time and never losing us in his spiel of action and reaction. With moments of physicalising the odd repetitions in the storytelling to moments of switching between characters in a conversation, the simple direction has a simple intention: to keep us comfortable in the nothings in an odd reasoning of nihilism. While there are moments that may have benefited off a more engaging practice or one less relocation to a different lighting spot, Creed’s work was polished and well-implemented, helping define the moments of humour and moments of humility with a drifting ease, likewise of a manservant drifting through the days at his workplace as he floats in a perpetual state of uncaring curiosity for the nothing-somethings around him.
With a bare stage that is removed of curtains so as to expose the back wall of the theatre, the stage seems vast and belittling upon Watt’s walking onto the stage. With some pipes and some wires dotting the stony backdrop here and there, we are transported to the alleyways of Watt’s travels with a nostalgic immediacy. There are two set pieces: a rustic red hand trolley and a chair. The trolley becomes a coat rack, and stays as one for the duration of the show. It could be asked why they didn’t just have a coat rack, but then, using a janitor-esque replacement proved as a clever way of subconsciously transporting us further into the world of the manservant and his service. The chair, however, was almost a prop in its constant movement around the stage to create new locations and become a platform for various images to materialise and jokes to land. With Watt removing his coat and hat upon the improvised coat-rack, he is dressed in plain semi-formals as a polite concierge would have donned, hair slicked back and face clean of any markings or dirtiness. Watt was your typical manservant.
Barry McGovern takes the crown in his stable, grounded interpretation of Watt in all his ponderings and humorings and nothings. With only a couple moments where he seemed to hesitate and become unsure of his lines, McGovern surely takes on the task of the one-man show with incredible tailorship to each and every nuance. His vocal prowess that resonates through the auditorium and loses not an ounce of intention or clarity goes to iterate and solidify McGovern as a dynamic monologuist who seldom needed to use his body to capture his audience. With an captivatingly Attenborough presence, McGovern takes a script of sweet-nothings and -noones and -nowheres with two hands and wrings out its intellectual contents comfortably as if he himself were Watt down to the very core, convincing the audience that he and Watt were one, and that their experiences and perspectives were the same. With unmatched comedic timing and an air of invitation to look into his world with him, McGovern makes even the most uncomfortable moments the most enriching, bringing light to what would otherwise be a heavy moment and pointing out the beauty of what makes something a nothing and vice versa.
The lighting was very interestingly worked in that its main source was a large, tilted screen hovering above Watt, shining a bordered square upon the stage as if constructing his master’s home. The tilted screen and its striping of thick lines also seemed to become the underside and rafters of the roof, in itself becoming a convention of set design. With much of the lighting coming from this screen and its dimming and brightening, we are shown a confined space in the open void, with only a vague residue of light dousing the “coat-stand” just outside the frame as if to be a constant reminder throughout the show of Watt’s return to the outside world. Showing an orb of white when Watt spoke of the moon to becoming the train station windows as daylight filtered through, the screen became its own character, melding between a spectrum of colours and imitating Watt’s cycling through the days and the moods and the stories. With general washes and spotlights and the casting of McGovern’s towering shadow upon the back wall in moments, the lighting effectively qualified each tale with something more, something beguiling. However, in a show with long speeches and minimal action, there were moments where the lighting was so low that it became a struggle to keep attentive, losing energy and thus losing focus from the audience as the stage blurred over in a haze.
Watt is a piece that brings certainty to the uncertain and the latter to its former again in an oddly familiar landscape. Gracing each word with a proper quality, McGovern establishes Watt’s character arch as one trying to interpret the worth of nothing, ultimately reaching the conclusion that, despite the unsettling notion that nothing – which is something – is still nothing at the end of the day, he quite liked the comfort of the expectation of nothing; that nothing is fine, that doing nothing and being nothing is a part of our everyday, and that we should accept nothing as just as valuable as something.