My Plea to Directors: Quit Screwing With Beckett!

c heilperngodot My Plea to Directors: Quit Screwing With Beckett! There is, I believe, a catastrophic error of judgment in Anthony Page’s production of Waiting for Godot, starring Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin.

Samuel Beckett’s seminal Modernist masterpiece—first produced in America in 1956—is famously set in a void with only a near-barren tree (a Beckett tree: one too fragile upon which to hang yourself). But I felt sunk the moment the curtain went up to reveal the stage cluttered with fake rocks and boulders arranged into some kind of plastic mountain.

Meet the Flintstones Beckett. They’re the modern Stone Age family.

The Bedrock Estragon and Vladimir of Mr. Lane and Mr. Irwin are one mismatched thing. But that ill-conceived set that the veteran British director has imposed on Godot is in direct contradiction to Beckett’s stated intentions.

Mr. Page—not an innovator, but usually a faithful director of classic texts—has made a very uncharacteristic lapse. It need not have been decisive had Santo Loquasto’s Flintstone set design worked better than any old mundane cliché, or even been relevant to the essence of the great play itself.

His un-Beckettian tree is far too sturdy. You could hang yourself from it, with ease. But his rocky landscape does not convince us half as much as the rocky landscape in the new production of the elm-free Desire Under the Elms (now nicknamed Desire Under the Rocks).

The Flintstone look is in. There was also the blasted moonscape that the British director Deborah Warner added recently to Beckett’s Happy Days, starring Fiona Shaw. O Sam, poor Sam! His spartan genius has bequeathed merely mortal directors and designers too much material to work with.

Will no one leave Beckett alone?

The new production of Waiting for Godot in London’s West End, starring Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, for example, takes the usual populist liberties: Beckett’s empty space has now become a hackneyed derelict theater, and the two stars—never innately funny performers in the first place—relish playing clowns too much, even singing and dancing creakily at the curtain call to the old British music-hall favorite, “Underneath the Arches.”

I trust they’re having a yabba dabba doo time.

 

THE DEBATE ABOUT “interpreting” sacred texts isn’t new. Nor are Shakespeare productions set in, say, the Wild West (which I’ve seen twice). Everything’s been done that mediocre directors insist on being done. Still, better a living reinterpretation of a classic play than a dusty revival of a museum piece.

I believe the plays of a precise minimalist like Beckett stand apart, however. My bias is in favor of staging his masterpieces as he intended. Let the characters and the words speak for themselves—stripped to the marrow of his lost souls damned at birth, or before.

Beckett’s notes are always musically the same; it’s a question of how you play them. Apart from the wayward stage design, Mr. Page—a traditionalist at heart—has kept conventionally to Beckett’s text for the Roundabout Theatre production at Studio 54. But Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin make a distant odd couple, whereas Estragon and Vladimir ought to be joined irrevocably at the hip.

The performers are too much themselves. Mr. Lane’s popular note of wryly comic exasperation belongs to his own familiar persona rather than to Estragon’s bleakly tragic emotionalism. Mr. Irwin—a brilliant mime, of course—makes a lightweight, fussily overintellectualized version of the cerebral Vladimir, and key line readings are disjointedly bizarre.

There’s no poetry in either of them, alas—and little of Beckett’s lament for humanity. Together, they fatally lack his tragic perspective. A generalized clownishness—with a comforting nod to Beckett’s love of music hall—only touches the reassuring surfaces of the play. It’s a tragicomedy. What in all dramatic literature could be sadder or more agonizingly hopeless than the news the child brings into the wilderness each bright new day: “Mr. Godot told me to tell you he won’t be coming this evening but surely tomorrow.”

“Nothing is funnier than unhappiness, I’ll grant you that”—as the mordant line goes in Beckett’s Endgame. Mr. Page’s production isn’t—thank goodness—the laugh riot of the Mike Nichols knockabout 1988 Waiting for Godot at Lincoln Center (in which Mr. Irwin appeared as Lucky, and Robin Williams’ Estragon performed manic impersonations of Hollywood stars, as usual). “Every line a laugh,” Beckett commented about it dryly.

But Mr. Lane and Mr. Irwin do not take us to the anguished depths—to “how it is on this bitch of an earth.” My benchmark for Godot is the Dublin Gate Theatre production with Beckett’s greatest interpreter Barry McGovern as Vladimir, along with Johnny Murphy’s Estragon. It was directed by Walter Asmus—who assisted Beckett on his own seminal production of Godot for the Schiller Theater in Berlin.

Irish actors understand Beckett, the Irishman, in their bones. And what the masterly Dublin production revealed—beside Beckett’s essential Irish gallows humor—is Godot‘s trust in salvation, in tandem with an awesome sorrow “where the light gleams an instant.”

There are two remarkable saving graces in the new Roundabout production, however. John Goodman’s Pozzo, the fat, bullying slave-driver with a posh British accent and the temperament of a ruined child, is a fabulous echo of Peter Bull’s original blustery Pozzo of Peter Hall’s celebrated London premier of Waiting for Godot in 1955. And the excellent John Glover’s unlucky Lucky, enslaved, beaten like Ireland, barely able to walk, exhausted, dying, could scarcely be better or more affecting.

Mr. Glover and a revelatory Mr. Goodman hit all the right notes.

jheilpern@observer.com