Kevin J. Wetmore, Jr.
Barry McGovern as Vladimir in Waiting for Godot at the Mark Taper Form. Photo: Craig Schwartz

Samuel Beckett – Waiting for Godot.
Dir. Michael Arabian.
With Alan Mandell and Barry McGovern.
14 March – 22 April 2012. Mark Taper Forum. Los Angeles, CA.

Very early on in the Mark Taper Forum production of Waiting for Godot, one line proved arresting and captured the experience of this Godot. As the two most famous tramps in contemporary literature surveyed the space in which they found themselves, nursing their wounds from a cold night in a ditch and a beating, Didi remarked, ‘On the other hand what’s the good of losing heart now, that’s what I say. We should have thought of it a million years ago, in the nineties’. Although Beckett was referring to the nineteenth century, the line assumed remarkable contemporary significance in Barry McGovern’s delivery. While the audience laughed heartily and knowingly, I suddenly found myself thinking about the play as newly relevant, as if we knew the line referred to a century before, and yet still felt it also—and actually—directed to a decade and a half ago: the 1990s. The success of this production was because of these moments of new recognition in an old friend that one thought one knew well. We were reminded that Godot can still surprise us, and that surprise made the production all the more interesting and valuable.

The metacontext of the production also shaped the experience and understanding of this Godot, the history and the legacy of the play reflected by its leading players. As the Los Angeles Times’s Margaret Gray noted in her review, ‘productions of this caliber are rare’, and compared the pairing of Alan Mandell and Barry McGovern, not incorrectly, to a ‘fantasy face-off’ of Washington versus Lincoln or ‘giant octopus versus giant squid’! Mandell and McGovern are two of the foremost interpreters of Beckett, having both worked extensively with the playwright as their director and having both played Didi and Gogo multiple times each (although McGovern has stated that he ‘sees [himself] as more of a Vladmir’). Mandell, who is now 84, quipped, ‘It was easier when I was 80’, yet performed with the energy of someone half his age. McGovern performed his 400th Godot during this run. Their performances brought the text to life in a dynamic way that transcended the theatrical stereotypes of Beckett and presented a play simultaneously realistic and absurd. These are two performers who knew Beckett and who know ‘Beckett’.

Experiencing Mandell and McGovern in Godot is watching and listening to two virtuosos playing beautifully from a difficult but beautiful score. In doing so, they make it look effortless yet show the beauty of the instrument being played and their own skill simultaneously. That skill brought a musicality and velocity to Beckett that has not always been present in other productions, and yet were the key factors to the aforementioned surprise and discoveries.

Estragon/Gogo was played by Mandell as fearful and depressed, yet with a playful physical comedy that belied his age and found the inherent clownishness of the character. McGovern’s Vladmir/Didi was played as alternately gregarious and annoyed. The action and dialogue was fast-paced, rapidly flowing back and forth, indeed this was the fastest Godot I have ever seen. Mandell recalled being directed by Beckett in an interview quoted by Gray: ‘I always thought of [Beckett] more as a conductor than a director. He didn’t sit around talking about who was this character, what life did he have before this. It was about rhythm. It was about language. The pauses were like musical beats’. If the production was shaped by thinking about it in terms of music, then these two virtuosos played quickly and lightly, but never in haste. This was Godot robbed of portentousness and pretentiousness, replaced with a Music Hall banter that weighed all the more serious for its lightness. The swiftness of the dialogue reminded me of the pleasures of Beckett versus the production of ‘Beckett’.

Left to Right: Barry McGovern, Alan Mandell, Hugo Armstrong and James Cromwell in Waiting for Godot. Photo: Craig Schwartz

The danger, of course, when such luminaries perform is that the rest of the cast must elevate their performances as well. It is here that the Taper Godot was most uneven. Hugo Armstrong was a competent and amusing Lucky. His noose formed a long lead stretching the length of the stage and even allowing him to enter the house. Pozzo’s yanking it from the other side of the stage, stopping Lucky’s progress with a backfall, provoked audible gasps from the audience. James Cromwell, however, seemed out of place in his interpretation of Pozzo. Cromwell, ordinarily an excellent performer on stage and screen (and who has directed the play in the past and played Pozzo before), constructed the character as ‘a bombastic, vicious aristocrat’ who, he claimed in an interview with Susan King for the Los Angeles Times, he ‘patterned after…Newt Gingrich’. These choices proved very odd, as Mandell and McGovern spoke in their own respective accents, but Pozzo, Lucky and Boy all seemed to be affecting a British clip. In fairness, Cromwell’s Pozzo was full of bombast, but I am not certain I would describe it as Gingrinchian. Perhaps Cromwell suffers by comparison with Mandell and McGovern, but he also demonstrates the dangers in ‘jollying up’ Beckett: one does not need Gingrich to enhance the text of Godot. Similarly, Boy (L. J. Benet) was dressed all in white and barefoot, ethereal, almost angelic, lending credence to audience members sitting near me who asserted that ‘Godot’ stood for God. Given how grounded and rooted the rest of the production was, it seemed an odd choice of costume and performance. Both in presentation and performance, only Lucky seemed to be from the same world as Vladmir and Estragon.

The world of the stage, pace the stage directions, featured a plain dirt circle with a bare tree (which sprouted a few small leaves for the second act) and rocks. Not specified from the text was a digital background with a digital country road and digital clouds. The production began with a digital figure walking down the road and disappearing below the back of the stage, emerging as Vladimir. It drove home the sense of the play’s being in medias res, reinforcing a sense of time in motion. It was also another enhancement of the text that reinforced the atmospherics and themes of Godot that purists might have found objectionable. Throughout the production the digital clouds kept moving slowly across the sky of the scrim and a digital moon slowly rose (projection designs by Brian Gale, who also designed the lights). The use of the projections was effective in conveying a world always slowly in motion but never really changing. The use of these digital projections was, perhaps, anathema to Beckett’s intentions, yet seemed perfectly suited to the play, this production and the world that Mandell and McGovern were creating on stage. It was both cutting-edge theatre technology, yet also suggestive of being ephemeral. The digital clouds also contrasted with the concrete reality of the dirt, tree and rocks of the stage. Whereas the latter were a physical presence, the former were an absent presence, light suggesting reality. In one sense, Beckett would have most likely objected, but in another it out-Godoted Godot.

Godot at the Taper was an inspired and inspiring production, though not without its quirks and problems. The rapidity of the dialogue, the snappy pace, and the imaginative departures (digital clouds, an overlong noose, Lucky passing through the audience, etc.) made this the right Godot for Los Angeles, yet the presence—and performances—of Mandell and McGovern evoked a sense of direct Beckettian lineage. Whereas two of Beckett’s hand-picked actors and digitally projected clouds would seem to be at odds, the production actually presented a unified whole. This might also be the fastest anyone has ever had to wait for Godot. Mr Godot still does not show, but we do not mind and the time passes quickly. Overall, the production provided a template for producing, performing and understanding Beckett in the twenty-first century. Vladimir was right: we should have thought of it a million years ago, in the nineties.

Note: With gratitude to Anthony Miller for his insights and suggestions

Published in The Beckett Circle, Autumn 2012.

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Posted by:Rhys Tranter

Rhys Tranter is a writer and photographer based in Cardiff, Wales, UK. His work has appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, The Spectator, and a number of books and periodicals. He holds a BA, MA, and a PhD in English Literature. His website RhysTranter.com is a personal journal offering commentary and analysis across literature, film, music, and the arts.

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