By Philip Pearce
AN ENGLISH TRANSLATION of a French play by a largely unknown Irish writer opened in London in 1955 to what its 24-year-old director Peter Hall described as “bafflement and derision.” Most critics sneered. A lot of the audience greeted the action with catcalls. Management of the struggling Arts Theatre in Great Newport Street promptly notified cast and crew the show would be closing in a week. But before that could happen, Waiting for Godot unexpectedly began to turn into what we now call a cult classic. And English speaking theater throughout the world has never been quite the same since.
Pre-Godot, Broadway and the West End theater had a sprinkling of absurdist comedies, but the prevailing motivation and money behind stage success depended on how well you followed the rules—harking back to Aristotle—which prescribed how you raised expectations in an audience which you then met in surprising ways by adroit casting and a cleverly crafted script.
A show about two down-at-heel unemployed comics waiting by a tree to meet someone neither they nor the author knows anything about and then never meeting him hardly filled the bill for theatrical success. But more than sixty years on, Waiting for Godot is living proof that a good play tends to follow the rules while a great one often ignores and kicks them in the pants.
Like so many classics, Godot has become a happy hunting ground for political, religious and philosophical interpretations. It’s a relief to discover that Samuel Beckett had a healthy contempt for most histrionic posturing. He seemed to think spectators should just enjoy the slapstick and the pathos the way he and I hope they enjoy Laurel and Hardy.
Come to PacRep’s Circle Theatre in Carmel between now and June 2 and see how a wonderful cast and an inspired director make it happen.
Yes, it’s about a brainy but confused guy named Vladimir and his equally confused down-at-earth sidekick Estragon waiting for but never meeting somebody named Godot. As Vladimir, Cassidy Brown is all compulsive stumbling brainwork. He twirls, postures and speculates with frantic optimism. A sad-faced, earth-bound Brian Herndon as Estragon just wants to take off his tight boots, catch some sleep, eat carrots, hold out his derby hat for an occasional handout and cut all the abstract babbling.
It’s clear both men have long since fallen from minor recognition as some kind of circus or music hall entertainers. They engage in repeated vaudeville cross-talk and perform a brilliantly executed Stan and Ollie routine with three hats. Both stink from the rigors of their hand-to-mouth vagabond existence, but with busy-brained Vladimir it’s up in his head with smelly breath; with Estragon it’s down at his toes with smelly feet.
These performers become gawping spectators with the arrival of another weird twosome made up of a paunchy, pompous and sadistic ‘lord of the manor’ type named Pozzo, dragging a long leash attached to a shrunken mute slave inappropriately named Lucky. This pair were given an anti-apartheid slant in a pre-Mandela South African production, but Beckett apparently didn’t think much of that either.
Veteran local favorite Larry Welch is an overpowering mountain of unheeding oppressive pride as the insufferable Pozzo. Accompanying him everywhere, Cody Moore makes stunning work of Lucky’s tour-de-force change from a cringing minion to an eerily powerful orator when his ruthless master suddenly orders him to abandon silence and “think.” Lucky responds in a startling four to five minute non-stop monologue delivered at mounting speed and increasing volume.
Fifth member of this dazzling cast is Joseph Cardinale, once again, as in the recent Coriolanus, a voice of quiet and touchingly juvenile good sense in a surrounding mix of adult confusion. He plays a boy and (possibly) his twin brother, in both cases bringing hopeful but false news that M Godot is on his way.
Director Kenneth Kelleher, as usual, provides patterns of meaningful, carefully choreographed stage action along with visuals that make clear what the playwright is driving at without ever cheapening or exploiting it. Each act begins with a blinding strobe-lit vision of Vladimir and Estragon. It’s immediately followed by a telling image of human expectation and disappointment in the back projection of one of those five-four-three-two clockwork countdowns flashed on movie screens just before you watch a film clip. Only there’s only the whirling disk of numbers, never any clip.
The down-to-brass-tacks Estragon echoes the disgruntled early critics and patrons at the 1955 premier when he comments that “nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes. It’s awful!”
But he’s wrong. It’s wonderful.