Friday, September 19, 2014
Last updated: 21 hours ago

Once absurd, Godot losing its subversive touch

Courtesy of Tim Matheson

And so Godot has arrived.

After half a century of waiting, Samuel Beckett’s seminal work of absurdist theatre is firmly clasped in the hands of the establishment. Waiting for Godot, debuted in 1953, had once courted controversy for flaunting theatrical conventions.

Now, as acknowledged by Blackbird Theatre’s artistic director, John Wright, the play is as much part of the Western canon as Shakespeare.

Blackbird’s mounting of Godot is unfailingly faithful. The sparse, minimalist set gives reverence to Beckett’s instructions: “A country road. A tree. Evening.” With this production, Wright sets out to “give full value of the comic in this ‘tragicomedy,’” with good reason.

Vladimir and Estragon, the bowler hat-clad vagabonds holding vigil for the eponymous Godot, claim some relation to Laurel and Hardy and the vaudeville tradition. The dialogue is replete with humour, ranging from bawdy—as when Vladimir entertains the idea of suicide by hanging: “Hmm. It’d give us an erection”—to sly—when he refers to the auditorium as “that bog.”

Yet, the constant goodwill becomes straining. While some silliness with a rope inspired guffaws, the performance tries so hard to wring laughter from the audience with every line, only to be met with mixed results. The terror and desperation of the two protagonists are not always felt.

Simon Webb and Anthony F. Ingram give consistently stellar performances in the lead roles. The bickering duo display convincing chemistry, abusing and amusing each other as they wait. Webb’s Estragon, in particular, was excellent, subtly shifting from anguish to ennui to hope, and pronouncing his ruminations with just the right weight.

As the imperious buffoon Pozzo, who interrupts the pair’s vigil, William Samples gives an appropriately hammy turn. However, it was his abused servant Lucky, played by Adam Henderson, that nearly stole the show. In his lengthy monologue, Henderson delivers the hodgepodge of legal and philosophical jargon as if he was flailing on the verge of lucidity.

Blackbird’s Godot is a perfectly competent rendering of a classic and an unfortunate reminder that becoming a classic is not without its costs. Vivian Mercier had famously praised Godot for having “achieved a theoretical impossibility—a play in which nothing happens, that yet keeps audiences glued to their seats.”

But, there was a detectable restlessness and audible rustling in the auditorium. For the modern audience, could it be that a play known for being outré and iconoclastic is now, dare I say it, too safe?