A country road. A tree. Evening. Thus begins the spare stage direction for Samuel Beckett’s classic Waiting for Godot, which rarely finds itself the centrepiece of theatre seasons these days. It’s still required reading for anyone with a passing interest in theatre, but it’s an intimidating marketing challenge for companies that are often focused on getting “bums in seats” in order to keep the lights on. It’s got a reputation for being a trifle dark. In one of the play’s most well-known quotes, one character says “They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.” Vladimir and Estragon spend the play famously waiting for someone who never arrives, and revisiting various iterations of the futile, “There’s nothing to be done.” So, you know … shiny.
But for those who know and love it, the play is a comic masterpiece, too. Irish theatre critic and scholar Vivian Mercier wrote about the two-act play in 1956, and famously described it as “a play in which nothing happens, twice.” That line is sometimes quoted as if it were a negative criticism of the play, but in fact he was marvelling at the fact that a play could be so engaging and yet so devoid of plot. Since Sirs Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart took on the roles in the West End and Broadway a few years ago, a few more people have realized that it can be a truly entertaining night out, not just an academic exercise.
This is the inaugural production for brand new company Black Radish Theatre, which takes its very name from a scene in this play. Founders Christopher Hunt, Andy Curtis, Duval Lang and Tyrell Crews based their collaboration on their longtime desire to see the play staged in Calgary, and their love of the piece is evident in every aspect of the production.
Beckett’s two protagonists have been compared to Laurel and Hardy, and certainly if you’re looking for the local version of Laurel and Hardy, it’s Hunt and Curtis. It feels as if they’ve stumbled and pratfallen their way through every comic duo in the canon, with sidesplitting results. But here, they employ their comedic skills with a light touch, letting the text take centre stage. They aren’t overly precious in their reverence for the material, but this is more of a gentle meditation on Godot — and meditation may be the word most in keeping with Beckett’s intent. These are two characters with no past and no future — simply the present moment. While some actors play Vladimir and Estragon with the testiness of an old married couple, and others with the affection of an older and younger brother, here they are just two people who, for better or worse, are enmeshed. “There are times when I wonder if it wouldn’t be better for us to part,” Estragon says, and sometimes Vladimir agrees. And yet they return every day, together.
As they cycle through a variety of ways to pass the time, they are diverted by the appearance of Pozzo (Lang) and Lucky (Crews), who are literally rather than metaphorically tied together, and in contrast to Vladimir and Estragon’s constant waiting, are constantly travelling. They manifest some of the more trenchant criticisms of the human condition, but also some of the most potential for comedy.
Some people conceive of the play as a long piece of music, with emphasis on the rhythm inherent in the ebbing and flowing of what is essentially a series of duets and a very occasional solo. If this is the case, then it’s particularly apt that a well-known local choreographer was tapped to direct this production. Denise Clarke of One Yellow Rabbit has a lengthy stage pedigree that is familiar to local audiences, and brings a strong visual sense to the staging. The theatre is configured with seating on one side only, which leaves a very large performance space, and she takes advantage of every inch of it. The characters are in constant motion and often far apart, and from the execution of yoga poses to subtly synchronized movements, her stamp is evident. Again, though, her approach is restrained, and there is never a sense that movement is more important than the text. Godot is a bit of a blank canvas onto which people tend to paint whatever is relevant for their very specific context — often imposing secret meanings which Beckett himself resisted. Well-known previous stagings have used set and costumes to suggest a post-apocalyptic American hellscape, or the seemingly endless wait for the end of apartheid in South Africa. Here, Clarke provides only slight manipulation of the space, battered costumes by Ralamy Kneeshaw, and stark lighting by Terry Gunvordahl, which act simply to magnify the contemplation taking place among the characters.
As an aside, I overheard a number of slightly pedantic arguments about the pronunciation of “Godot” on my way out of the theatre. Here’s a nice article that sets out the right answer — which is that there isn’t one. https://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/12/theater/the-right-way-to-say-godot.html
Waiting For Godot runs at the Grand until May 12.
Lori Montgomery is a former FFWD theatre critic who practices medicine to support her writing habit.