Waiting for Godot
by Samuel Beckett
Lorenzo Society, Nasty Shadows Theatre Co., Charlotte Street Arts
In reviewing last year's production by this same group of Beckett's Endgame I said that it, and Godot, are "deceptively simple, and look on the page as though there wouldn't be much to putting them on." What I didn't say -- and what the recent Nasty Shadows production of Godot made clear on its visit to Fredericton -- was that they're not only harder than they seem to put on, they're harder than they seem to watch. Waiting for Godot, especially, is a script which invites the audience to become uncomfortable and impatient, which reminds us over and over that, as the first line of the play says, there's "nothing to be done," which invites us to respond to Vladimir's remark about the first appalling scene with Pozzo and Lucky -- "That passed the time" -- as Estragon does: "It would have passed in any case."
Beckett, it's clear, wanted us not just to watch his characters' desperate and failing struggle to make their lives mean something, to have some aim or transcendent goal: he wanted us to know how that feels. When we laugh, as we do in watching almost any production of this extraordinarily funny play, we need at the same time to feel that the laughter is just barely holding off despair, that what we can do in this hard world, reduced to our essence, is laugh and love in spite of everything. To feel that, not just to understand it, is, I think what Beckett wanted for us, and it's no damn fun. Or, putting it another way, it is fun, but it's fun of an edgy, painful kind, a kind that Beckett specialized, almost without equal, in offering us. Early film comedians like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin gestured in this direction, and it's clear that the hopeless tramps of Godot are in important ways indebted to them, but Beckett, and especially Godot, is the locus classicus of the black, despairing laugh. When we laugh, we are, like Didi when his kidneys function, "relieved and at the same time . . . appalled."
I had high hopes for Robert Moore's production; on the basis on his wonderful Endgame last year, it seemed to me he and his company were in a position to give us a Beckett delicately balanced on the knife edge between comedy and tragedy, one in which we could be, at the same time, relieved and appalled. On the whole, I was not disappointed.
The set (not much to it: Beckett says "a tree" and "a low mound") was appropriately stark, and though the playing space in the newly opened Charlotte Street Centre has some of the same problems as Memorial Hall (raised stage, unraked house) and some new ones (no wings, no real backstage), the production seemed perfectly suited to the venue. Perfectly straightforward, it gave us a Beckett pretty much on Beckett's own terms, leaving the impact essentially to the company, who were as clearly disciplined and focused as you could hope.
The most impressive performance was a surprise to me: Thomas Goud's Pozzo was an unforgettable figure -- making Estragon's difficulty in remembering him ("he gave me a bone. . . . And all that was yesterday, you say?") even more powerful. The overwhelming, smug air of self-satisfaction and self-absorption, the complete contempt for everything around him, that Pozzo emanates, was as strong and repellent (and yet at the same time attractive) as in any production of this play I've ever seen. The sudden contrast created by the eruption of Pozzo and Lucky into the empty, eventless, pointless world of Vladimir and Estragon is a central element of Beckett's play, and the crack of Pozzo's whip was as surprising and incomprehensible as it needed to be. Like Vladimir and Estragon, we're helpless spectators at this display of ignorant cruelty, and because of that we find ourselves forced into their embrace, sympathizing with them as they struggle to say that there's something inexpressibly wrong with Pozzo's treatment of Lucky. Goud's stage presence, his supercilious sneer, his commanding voice, all combined to make the Pozzo of the first act not only just the explosion the play needs, but also an astonishing contrast to the broken, pathetic Pozzo who reappears in Act II.
Similarly, local veteran actor Andrew Jones' Lucky was a remarkable performance. His despairing grunt every time he followed another barked order from Pozzo, his despairing slump as he clutched his load of baggage, and -- especially -- the powerful madness of the long speech in which, at Pozzo's command, Lucky attempts to "Think, Pig!" made him, I think, everything Beckett had in mind.
Estragon and Vladimir (Scott Shannon and Chris Stacey), too, were pretty much what I think Beckett had in mind. Without the Laurel and Hardy bowler hats many productions give them, they looked a little more like authentic street people, and a little less clownlike, and if they missed hitting a few of the lines I've come to wait for, they still gave us all we could stand of desperation in the face of ultimate boredom, and of love in the face of emptiness. Every time they discuss how they should really part, how there's no point in their staying together, and how in spite of that they do stay together, we're reminded that at the bottom of this well of loneliness there's a dark, bitter pool of love. The darkness -- and the love -- is never better conveyed than in the little dialogue where they consider the logistic problem of hanging themselves from the pathetic tree. Considering whether the bough might break, Estragon (usually the more confused of the two) explains that they can't make a test of the hypothesis: "Gogo light—bough not break—Gogo dead. Didi heavy—bough break—Didi alone. Whereas— " And Vladimir says, immediately understanding, "I hadn't thought of that."
Shannon's stiff, pathetic Estragon, limping one-bootedly about, is as affecting as we might expect, given his wonderful performance last year as the similarly afflicted Clov; and Stacey strikes just the right note of aggrieved dignity as Vladimir. And even Nick Mitchell's Boy was appropriately uncomprehending and unhelpful. In short, Robert Moore and his Nasty Shadows troupe offered us a long, hard look at one of the greatest, and one of the most difficult to watch, scripts of the twentieth century.