Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Samuel Beckett: Waiting for Godot

To the Theatre Royal, Bath, last night, to see Samuel Beckett's play Waiting for Godot, directed by Sir Peter Hall.

For several summers past, Sir Peter Hall has brought a company of actors to Bath, where they have performed a number of plays in repertory. Last year, for instance, I noted Shaw's Man and Superman. This year the plays are Private Lives (Coward), Much Ado (himself), Waiting for Godot, and Shaw's You Never Can Tell (not yet seen).

Last night's performance was particularly interesting in a number of ways. It is now fifty years since Peter Hall first directed the play in its English-language world premiere. He has written an account of how that premiere came about in the programme notes.

To understand what an extraordinary event Godot was in the London theatre of the 1950s, you need to have some feel for what English society was like at the time. And if you weren't around then -- or even if you were -- you could do worse than read my post of 13 June, in which I describe the atmosphere.

Suffice it to say here that in the 1950s the English were, as I put it, 'tight-arsed and morally restrictive to a degree which young people today would find hard to believe. It seems as if, having fought so hard to preserve what we had, in two world wars, we had lost all awareness that change might sometimes be for the better.'

In the theatre of 1955, the fashion was still for traditional well-made plays, usually in three acts, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. There was, of course, a censor (the Lord Chamberlain, no less), who eliminated any hint of smut, overt (or even imaginary) references to sex, comments on religion, references to the Royal family, et cetera. Theatre, in short, was bland, polite, respectable, and dull.

In 1955 Peter Hall was 24 years old, and, as he puts it, a very lucky young man. After a career in undergraduate theatre at Cambridge, he had been put in charge of the Arts Theatre in Great Newport Street, London, and was told to produce a play every four weeks. He used this opportunity to do a number of new and adventurous productions.

One day, Donald Albery, a leading impresario of the time, offered him Waiting for Godot. It had been running in Paris for a couple of years, where it was a hit with the avant-garde, and Beckett (who had originally written it in French) had now translated it into English. But Albery could find no English actor willing to appear in it, or a director willing to risk his professional life by directing it.

Hall liked the play, but he too found it difficult to cast, and the reviews were not encouraging. Even the great Bernard Levin described it as 'a remarkable piece of twaddle.' The production nearly closed at the end of its first week, but the drama critic of the Sunday Times, Harold Hobson, saved its life. He not only wrote a warm and perceptive review, but went on writing about it for the next seven Sundays.

Godot mania soon gripped London. It was the Rubik cube or the Sudoku of its day. It caught on: cartoonists depicted it, commentators wrote about it, and television pundits discussed it.

Godot was, of course, and still is, a bit of a puzzler. The set is a bleak space in the 'open air', with the bare bones of a tree and a rock to sit on; nothing else. In this landscape two tramps talk about nothing very much as they pass the time while they wait for Godot to appear. After a while they are joined by two other strange characters, who also talk about nothing very much. It is a two-act play, as one critic said, in which nothing happens: twice.

Godot puzzled, and it offended. Lady Dorothy Howitt wrote to the Lord Chamberlain requesting that the play be banned. She described it as 'offensive against all sense of British decency.' But it was also, of course, very funny. Only recently an elderly professor of biology told me how amazed he was by that original production.

Peter Hall has directed the play only once (I believe) between 1955 and 2005, and that was seven years ago, at the Old Vic. So this anniversary production is something special. Last night was the very first performance, and was technically a preview; the press won't be invited in for another week.

As you would expect, the Peter Hall Company perform to a very high standard, but the first-act curtain was messed up by the lighting director, and there will doubtless be a few more tweaks before Hall is satisfied. In my opinion there are a good few laughs to be got out of it yet -- a few opportunities missed.

I first saw the play in the late 1950s, in Cambridge, where the audience was young, sharp, and alert. Last night's audience was, as is always the case in Bath, middle-aged at best, and perhaps slightly sleepy. Despite that, the play got a warm reception. If nothing else, the audience seemed to understand that this was a historic occasion.

If you see the play for the first time this year, you may well wonder what all the fuss was about. But it is hard to underestimate its impact. The success of Godot altered everything. As Hall points out, the way was opened for Harold Pinter, Joe Orton, Edward Bond, and subsequent generations. A decade on, the impact was clearly felt in such productions as Monty Python's Flying Circus; and today Spamalot plays on Broadway.

By the way, here is a little conundrum for you. In the post-war era, Cambridge University has produced countless theatrical stars, including directors (e.g. Peter Hall, Jonathan Miller, Nicholas Hytner), actors (Hugh Laurie, John Cleese, Emma Thompson), and producers, lighting men, et cetera. How is it that the drama department of the University has achieved such distinguished output?

Answer: there is no drama department at Cambridge. If you do theatre at Cambridge you do it as an extracurricular activity, on top of your formal degree studies.

Do you think, perhaps, that there could be a lesson here for all those universities offering MFA degrees?

6 comments:

Leta said...

I saw a lovely production of "You Never Can Tell" in Washington, DC earlier this year. If the one you see is as good, you are in for a real treat.

Iain said...

Ah yes, Godot. Nothing has been quite the same since.

What Godot represented –- and why so many found it offensive rather than just incomprehensible -– was a rejection of a whole culture. Fifty years ago, Western civilisation had developed fairly steadily in living memory until 1914, since when it had gone completely bananas. The dead of the Great War, said Ezra Pound in 1920, died ‘For an old bitch gone in the teeth, For a botched civilisation’. Beckett looked at that civilisation, saw only a blasted no-man’s-land, and reacted with a bitter laugh.

But I’d like to comment on Your Grumpiness’s closing remarks. MFA (Master of Fine Arts) degrees are just one example of the many futilities practised by our universities today. It has become heresy to question the assumption that we must all have degrees. What does it take to persuade people that a degree is just a piece of paper? An idiot with a degree remains an idiot; a well-trained plumber is something else.

The UK presently suffers from elephantiasis of the educational system. I would guess that at least 90 per cent of university departments could close down tomorrow, and leave the country better off. Except that it would create large-scale unemployment. And don’t think that politicians aren’t fully aware of that fact.

Why indeed does Cambridge keep producing leading theatrical lights when it has no drama department? The answer, of course, is that it produces them because it has no drama department. Cambridge students who devote themselves to the stage do so voluntarily in their free time; they are fired by genuine enthusiasm. And there are no professors to tell them the right way to do it.

Or look at creative writing courses. The most prestigious in this country is at the University of East Anglia, which has produced Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro to name but two. One of its alumni (I forget who) recently accepted that the course was of value to him only in giving him the time and opportunity to write.

I don’t believe that you can’t teach creative writing, I believe that you shouldn’t. Far too many people are writing fiction today, and I would stake my life on it that the closure of all creative writing courses would have no effect whatever on the overall standard. If such courses serve any purpose at all, it is simply this: if you can boast of a degree in creative writing from the University of East Anglia, then publishers and agents might actually look at your work.

Anonymous said...

I watched Godot in Bath at the weekend and was deeply impressed. Having never seen a production before, I was curious to discover, as you put it, 'what all the fuss was about'.

What stood out for me was the captivating performance of Lucky, played by Richard Dormer. He brought a uniquely physical interpretation to his characterisation that added to both the comedy and the tragedy of the piece. The infamously difficult soliloquy Lucky delivers in the first Act was stunning and Richard's delivery had an impressive musicality about it. As ever, his was a performance that stays with you.

The production's sensitivity to Irish history, particularly the collapse of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy and the famine years, I felt came through loud and clear both in the Lucky soliloquy and in the relationship between Lucky & Pozzo. Food for thought.

Inspiring stuff and highly recommended. On until sept 3rd in Bath.

Let's see the powers that be in the English/Irish theatre sort themselves out and get this historic production on in the West End, where it deserves to be.

Anonymous said...

I saw this production last Wednesday and I agree with the previous poster; Richard Dormer as Lucky was absolutely superb, his performance worth the ticket price alone; his speech utterly mesmerising and rhythmic in a way I'd never envisaged it. He worked as hard on stage as any actor I've ever seen.
Terence Rigby also played a blinder as Pozzo, making me crease up with belly laughs early in the first act with some exquisite timing as he commands Lucky while eating his chicken.
I must say though, that this was pretty much the only point when I laughed out loud. Some of the audience were sort of forcing themselves to laugh at the prat-falls and vaudeville stuff, which wasn't funny at all, and isn't really supposed to be in my opinion.
Overall, it was an excellent production, although I felt James Laurenson as Vladamir was miles too 'theatrical' and 'lovey' for the part. I felt he hadn't given much thought to the meaning of the piece.
But the power of Beckett's text still shone through, most powerfully I felt, at the climax of the play, in the second scene with the boy, which sends shivers through me every time I think of it. Beckett captured something truly universal and deeply haunting there, and Peter Hall executes this key moment and others with the insight one would expect.

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