Status update: Waiting for Godot and I have decided to stop seeing each other. I guess it won’t come as a surprise. Things have been pretty bad for a while. Looking back, I can’t remember when we were last happy. Or even interested in each other.
In my head, I have a perfect version of Samuel Beckett’s play: not in the details of staging, just one that has some of the effect I’ve had when reading and thinking about it. Hilariously funny, achingly sad, opening a window on a universe of loneliness. Never in the theatre, though. I have huffed at Peter Hall’s maundering Godot, smiled genially at Ian Brown’s one, appreciated the fine cadences of the Gate Theatre from Dublin. Last night, Sydney Theatre Company at London’s Barbican proved the final sullen meal over lukewarm pizza. Despite a performance of extraordinary physical grace and sonorous vocal effect by Hugo Weaving as Vladimir (above left: photo by Ingvar Kenne), I found Andrew Upton’s production archly unbearable. The same tepid clowning, vocal portent. The barren tree and muddy palate. Words falling dead in the air.
Bored in the name of art
Look, I have often been bored in the name of art. I have almost as often persuaded myself that it is worth it. Is the problem the famously restrictive Beckett estate – or the way directors try to second-guess its approval? I’ve never seen a dull Happy Days or a deadbeat Endgame, but my strike rate with Godot is remarkably poor – perhaps I’ve just seen the wrong productions. It may no accident that the one that spoke most directly to me was Luc Bondy’s French revival. Ever since, I’ve longed to go into the theatre and hear the old words sound new, the universe reveal itself afresh.
I’m a sucker for revivals, because I never get over seeing the same play performed in radically different ways. Last summer, A Streetcar Named Desire was sent spinning by Benedict Andrews, and stripped down by Secret Theatre. This year, The Merchant of Venice was made hurtful and gaudy by Rupert Goold, sleek and nasty by Polly Findlay. Changes aren’t just a way of grabbing attention – they reprism a play, find different stories within its plot, unique emotional and political paths through it. Good productions of the same play will each take you to a markedly distinct destination.
Dance doesn’t play by those rules – as Tamara Rojo, the bullish director of English National Ballet, lamented in an interview this week. ‘I think all choreography in general is too sacrosanct,’ she told Brue Marriott. ‘I don’t think it’s in the best interest of dance as an art form – to freeze ballets in time. And you see it with choreographers like Béjart and Roland Petit. The movement language is still good, but because they are frozen in time in every aspect: lighting, costume, sets, everything – even the gestures that you do, you have to replicate whatever someone did 50 years ago. What we really in fact are doing is killing ballet. I do love going somewhere like the National Theatre where they take plays and they do exactly that mixing up… Nobody would expect to see an Arthur Miller play today like they did it in the 40’s and 50s. It would be strange. Writers of the 20th century are not seen as sacrosanct. They mix them up as much as they want, they take them out of context, they put it in a different period of time. They put it on a different planet if they want.’
Miller was less open to experiment than that might suggest – as the Wooster Group discovered – and writers like Pinter and Albee also famously had run-ins with mixologist directors. But the point, in general, stands. An original production isn’t the template. Stage directions are suggestions, not commands.
But, yes, theatre expects that the artists working on a play will be in conversation with it, not merely nodding along while it drones at them. Godot has become exactly that kind of bore – unquestioned, unchallenged. As Rojo says, ‘sacrosanct’. If everything about that play is holy – the tree grown from the original cutting, the hokey bits of twinkling shtick – then we’ll be stuck with three hours of reverence for evermore. The Beckett Foundation’s webpage on performing rights includes a winsome quote from Happy Days: ‘Heavens what are they up to!’ – a self-deprecating little whinny about saucy interpreters. What they’re up to, if we’re lucky, is creating acts of theatre rather than acts of worship.
Follow David on Twitter: @mrdavidjays