Still “waiting”, with time ticking away for humanity – “Waiting for Godot” at Circa Theatre, Wellington

Circa Theatre presents: “Waiting for Godot” by Samuel Beckett

CAST:  Estragon  –  Jeff Kingsford-Brown
Vladimir  – Andrew Foster
Pozzo  –  Peter Hambleton
Lucky  –  Jack Buchanan
Boy  –  Alex Buyck

Director  –  Ross Jolly
Set Designer –  Andrew Foster
Lighting Designer  –  Marcus McShane
Costume Designer   –  Sheila Horton

Circa Theatre,
I Taranaki St, Wellington

Saturday, 4th May 2019

(until 1st June 2019)

It’s interesting that my first, completely “out of the blue” experience of “Waiting for Godot” was provided some time during the mid-1960s, by a group of actors who called themselves “The Southern Comedy Players”, a foursome if I remember, who frequently toured the country’s secondary schools, and fortunately for me, had our school in Palmerston North “on their list”. The group performed excerpts from various plays, presenting a wide range, including classics (Goldsmith – “She Stoops to Conquer”), New Zealand works (Mason – “The Pohutukawa Tree”), and twentieth-century works (Beckett – “Waiting for Godot”).

I saw this group perform in their “school visits” context at least twice, and perhaps even three times over those years – but the trio of presentations mentioned above are the ones that have stuck in my memory. The name of the troupe “The Southern Comedy Players”, and the droll, whimsical humour of what I remember of the “Waiting for Godot” excerpt on that occasion indelibly etched in my brain the idea that Samuel Beckett’s play was indeed a kind of bizarre, bare-bones comedy. I would imagine that the performance on that occasion would have shared many of the qualities I enjoyed in Circa Theatre’s new production, most strikingly of all, a laconic, home-grown, “she’ll be right” way with the engaging characterisations of the two major protagonists, Estragon and Vladimir.

In fact my initial reaction here to the personas and interactions of each of these characters was a kind of “Hang on a minute, mate/One of Us” familiarity, as if both Vladimir and Estragon had wandered out of the pages of the Sam Cash novels by Barry Crump, the “everyman” characters fitted out both visually and vocally with a rugged, old-fashioned Kiwi context, however skin-deep. I somehow “knew” them of old, and reflected as the play’s essential inactions mirrored, refracted and regurgitated throughout how those archetypal Kiwi blokes had, in Beckett’s hands, become emasculated by the enactment of what seemed like a never-ending ritual of “waiting for Godot”.

Whomever Godot is or was, we in the audience never found out – the “waiting” consisted instead of a variety of discussions, mostly between Estragon and Vladimir, interrupted by encounters in each of the two Acts with a man and his servant, and also with a boy, the latter telling them on each of his appearances that Godot could not come “today” but would come “tomorrow” instead. We were left at the very end with the omnipresence of the play’s “theme” of essential inaction brought about by the “waiting”, when both men agreed to leave – but neither moved!

So, like figures performing a slow dance, the two characters pirouetted painstakingly through the play’s two Acts, one for each day, displaying with both word and action what seemed like endless preoccupation with minutae, every so often punctuating their exchanges with resonances that promised much but led to little (Vladimir’s Biblical reference to the two thieves crucified with Christ, for instance, or the inconsistencies between the four Gospel accounts regarding the thieves’ presence). Uncertainties abounded – the place, the time, the objects, the circumstances – everything mentioned was unconfirmed, made more nebulous than it was before being mentioned – For example, what day was it? Saturday? – Or Sunday? Or Monday? Or Friday!? Was the tree where they were to meet Godot really a tree? Or a bush? – perhaps a shrub? Were they here yesterday? What did they do, yesterday? Did they recognise the place? Did it make any difference?

These two “chapters” of dysfunctional connectivity between co-dependent characters were similarly interrupted by two ”arrivals”, firstly by a kind of master-servant pair roped together, respectively Pozzo and Lucky; and then by a boy bring the news of Godot’s “postponement” of the promised rendezvous with Estragon and Vladimir. Of the master-servant combination, Pozzo’s portly, well-heeled figure presented a stark contrast with that of Lucky, who, though dressed more as a carnival-performer-cum punk-rocker complete with bleached-blonde hair, appeared to be his slave. Pozzo’s cruel and disdainful treatment of Lucky, tethered at the end of a rope, made for directly uncomfortable watching, as did Lucky’s almost shell-shocked obedience of Pozzo’s every curtly-delivered command. The former’s sickening obsequiousness was allayed for a few spectacularly-delivered moments of maniacal speech and dance, outpourings of controlled energy which justly earned the actor a round of impulsive applause from an agog audience!

The reappearance of these two in the Second Act reversed their situations, with Pozzo having gone blind and Lucky guiding him while taking refuge in dumbness, Pozzo’s previous overbearing manner now replaced with humility and some insight (in the play as a whole there are a handful of parallels of this kind –  the vagabonds’ reflections on “nothing to be done”, Estragon’s thoughts of madness, and Pozzo’s blindness – with Shakespeare’s King Lear). In stark contrast to all of this  was the fresh-faced, straightforwardly-spoken boy messenger from the enigmatic Godot, a ray of equable sunshine on each of his appearances, when compared to the idiosyncratic tramps, Estregon and Vladimir, and the almost hallucinatory pairing of Pozzo and Lucky. How Beckett was able to imbue his work with so distinct an “everyman” quality via characters of such idiosyncrasy and grotesquerie is one of the miracles wrought by both a playwright’s skills and the theatre’s transforming power of suspended (and, here, metaphoric) belief.

All of this was realised for us with a directness of presentation in its sight, sound and general physicality which brooked no interference with whatever messages we in the audience chose to receive. Designer Andrew Foster put us in the action’s space, with everything clearly and mercilessly-focused – not especially rugged, but satisfyingly bleak, and in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, a tree and a block of concrete-like material forward of a suggested pathway running along the upstage. In tandem with Marcus McShane’s unambiguous, implacably advancing “day’s journey into night” lighting, the scenario unerringly conveyed a feeling of the characters’ utter helplessness against and subjection to endless cycles of time, the action of each act framed beautifully by sombre string-quartet-like music and an ambiguously striking half-sentinel, half-spectre presence of a moon.

I’ve already commented on Estragon’s and Vladimir’s engagingly familiar kind of “down-under vagabond” garb, Sheila Horton’s costumes for the pair for me hitting the spot, with Vladimir, as befitted his more philosophical and pro-active speech, somewhat more organised appearance-wise than his more bedraggled companion. Pozzo and Lucky couldn’t have been more of a contrast, the former most nattily attired, formality enlivened with colourfully psychedelic shoes, and the latter part-punk, part-gothic in his garb and coiffure – each, nevertheless, lost in their respectively-stated worlds of self-expression, and even in their visual assurance as helpless as were the two vagabonds in their “live-and-sleep-rough” garb. A hat-play sequence between the characters allowed Beckett scope for certain vaudeville goings-on, as well as symbolising certain aspects of each individual’s identity (in the first productions everybody wore bowler hats – a standard vaudeville prop, incidentally, though nowadays, as here, directors tend to opt for discernably different headgear). Lucky’s hat was important to him for thinking, Pozzo’s for social status, and Vladimir’s as a source of knowledge – only Estragon seemed “liberated” from whatever talismanic potential possessed by his headgear, putting his trust instead in his boots.

Unfortunately I never saw director Ross Jolly’s previous (and legendary) production of “Godot” in Wellington twenty years before. Without directly knowing what his earlier approach was, I’m wondering whether he’d decided to more consistently “lighten” the interactions, ambience and textures of the whole this time round – for the simple reason that I was expecting something more deeply disturbing, more extreme at each of the spectrum’s ends, the humour more manic, the desperation blacker and more cutting. It would be in line with a “distillation of response” over that time involving a more insoucient touch, a freer use of humour – though all of this is pure conjecture on my part. However it all was, nothing here was superfluous or wasted or lacking in motivation or conviction in the results achieved by his direction and the audience’s outward responses to them.

In fact his actors seemed here to relish the freedoms of light and space and warmth at the work’s beginning, with both Jeff Kingsford-Brown as Estragon and Andrew Foster as Vladimir readily filling the opening spaces with their respective preoccupations, Kingsford-Brown at intervals  beautifully conveying almost child-like sequencings of curiosity, puzzlement, irritation, delight and impishness, however quickly each impulse returned him to his default-setting of anxiety and “wanting to be off”. His introductory struggles with the removal of his shoes had a Blake-like “world in a grain of sand” preoccupation which put him akin to an animal struggling to survive in, let alone make sense of a world of nightly beatings and daily vigils of hopelessness.

More of a thinker and a free-wheeling philosopher, Andrew Foster’s Vladimir readily and more pro-actively fleshed out his curiosities and irritations with an engaging charm and bright-eyed quickness of manner, though as the play unfolded we realised that his somewhat more energised and quixotic impulses and responses to things were actually more style than substance. More superficially rational and empathetic than Estragon, he repeatedly reminded his companion, even amid their most trenchant tribulations of whom they were supposed to be waiting for.

Peter Hambleton’s well-dressed, arrogant, self-regarding Pozzo ably pushed all of our buttons in the expected manner upon his arrival with the rope-bound Lucky, whom he treated as his slave with the utmost contempt and degradation, while addressing Estragon and Vladimir with hardly less disdain, the episode presumably a kind of “comfort stop” for Pozzo on his journey to wherever. As Lucky, Jack Buchanan’s physical control of his back-breaking position of utter servitude was no less remarkable than his sudden outburst of both manic dancing and clearly-enunciated nonsensical diatribe whose completion compelled his audience to spontaneous clapping – that it was more entertaining circus-act than piteous lunatic raving was due as much to Beckett’s alienatory settings as to the production’s more absurd than tragic leaning.

When Pozzo and Lucky returned in the Second Act, their roles were somewhat reversed, Lucky leading his now-blind master back across the vistas, the cortege collapsing in a heap midway to the piteous cries of the once-dominant and overbearing Pozzo, Estragon taking his opportunity amid the melee to kick Lucky in revenge for his first-Act injury. The play ended as the first half ended, with the boy arriving carrying the message that Godot will not come today but tomorrow for sure, and Vladimir and Estragon agreeing that they will go, but instead stay.

By the play’s end the hopelessness of the situation of Estragon and Vladimir was complete – amid the chaos they remained trapped, steadfast to the idea that their only choice was to wait for “Godot”. In this way, the production consistently expressed the dictum (not Beckett’s) “a tragedy to the heart and a comedy to the intellect”, and in the best existential tradition, left the question of “the best course” unanswered. A question for humanity at large, perhaps, waiting for us to “wake up to ourselves?”.

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