Starting with Beckett

by Michael

Whence a certain confusion in the exordia, long enough to situate the condemned and prepare him for execution.

This is a quote from “The Unnameable” by Samuel Beckett. It has provided me with a name for this blog, so it seems fitting that the first post should relate to Beckett. But before that, there’s just time to say that, while I hope writing a regular blog will help me get back into the habit of expressing my ideas and plans with a view to creating some thing, I want the posts to be of interest to you, the almost inevitably accidental reader. So let me know what you think.

So I saw “Waiting for Godot” last week. Beckett’s most famous play, it is famous for being indecipherable, or genius, or whatever you think as long as it’s difficult to ‘get’. It is also famous for being a play in which “nothing happens. Twice.” I’ve read it before, but never seen it performed on stage. This production is at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London, and stars some pretty big names: Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Simon Callow and Ronald Pickup. I was worried they would be too hammy, overdo the ac-Tor-ing, play at ‘doing’ Beckett.

I shouldn’t have worried. They were fantastic, particularly McKellen as Estragon, playing with a light touch and immaculate control. And Callow was born to play Pozzo.

It’s too many days later for me to write a proper review. Michael Billington gives a good appraisal on the Guardian‘s website. But he felt the all-star cast does get away with some undue Thespian business:

But Sean Mathias’s production not only includes superfluous Goon Show-type sound effects but also permits its two lead actors to get away with a good deal of showbiz shtick. At times I felt the evening was closer to Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys, about the reunion of two old vaudevillians, than to Beckett’s tragic vision of humanity.

I agree with his comment about the sound effects. The sound design was very odd, and not in a particularly effective way as far as I was concerned. But on the showbiz schtick, well, I think Beckett is all about the humour. His novels are full of it and his plays too – it’s only po-faced readings by serious folk that render the comedy entirely pathetic instead of being the vital driving force of the ‘tragic vision’. I find this in James Joyce as well. It’s funny. And that doesn’t undermine the tragedy, it heightens it and softens you up for the hard punch of Sisyphus’s legacy – the grinding reality of a life that submits to monotonous repetition.

Of course, the repetition in Waiting for Godot (the second round of “nothing”) is not monotonous. The differences are perhaps slight, but in this limited universe, the changes are earth-shattering – as well as being all but insignificant to the characters. It leaves the audience not knowing, which has to be a good thing.