'Tis the time's plague, when madmen lead the blind', Act IV, Scene I, King Lear
In light of the recent death of Sir Peter Hall, the man who brought Waiting for Godot onto the stage and into the canon, one wonders if The Tobacco Factory’s production resonates more when its creator is lost in the same oblivion with which the play grapples. For the characters Estragon and Vladimir, their emptiness combines with a plethora of withered root vegetables, and the constant question, ‘why are we waiting?’ It would be easy to have the prejudice that we are drawn to Godot out of duty, because the play is infamous for its significance and effect on the language of theatre. Its absurdism can equally be hard to stomach if one does not come into the play fully willing to suspend disbelief and enjoy the language games.
However, the Tobacco Factory’s Waiting for Godot is a gift for the company, who act with such tenderness and engagement that all of the significant elements of the play are highlighted without being crammed down the audience’s throats. Whether it be the issue of class demonstrated with the master-servant relationship of Pozzo and Lucky, or Vladimir and Estragon’s mutual dependence confirming the importance of companionship, Beckett’s messages are all implicit in the acting. Everything is easily digested by the audience without seeming laboured. All that needs to be said about the inequity of the class system is alluded to with Pozzo’s majesty and articulation as the master, dragging Lucky with a rope around his neck. One of the final scenes is beautifully executed when it becomes evident that despite his protestations, the blinded Pozzo depends on Lucky for guidance. Evocative of the more modern elements of Shakespeare, some of the monologues remind me of Lear’s decent into madness, with the coupling of Lucky and Pozzo being particularly similar to Edgar leading a blinded Gloucester. Beckett expresses a similar mastery of language when confronting madness.
From the start, the set introduces the sense of gathering the random and creating a substitution for reality. Suggestive of Magritte’s The Treachery of Images, we are presented with a tree which is not a tree but a pole with metal clips for branches. Ceci n’est pas une pipe: this isn’t a stump to sit down upon but a stack of bricks redolent of Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII. This already sets up a guessing game for the audience; they must provide some interpretative skills in order to find meaning within the chaos. The set works especially well in the round of The Tobacco Factory as the audience create an enclosed space which makes the oblivion even more suffocating.
It’s not just the visual which is effective; the Tobacco Factory’s production needs to be commended for the fastidious directing, which assures its success. Waiting for Godot is impressive because it still finds place for humour rather than being entirely bleak. Of course, we feel sorry for Vladimir- hunched, mortified when no one can remember meeting him the day before. Yet there is always humour to be found, particularly when Estragon tries to guess Pozzo’s name by shouting Cain and Abel and Pozzo responds to both. Therefore he is, In Estragon’s words, ‘all of humanity’. Further, there is still the enduring hope that Vladimir and Estragon will find Godot despite the cyclical nature of the play.
Beckett’s comments on old age are also interesting. One can draw obvious allusions between the names ‘God’ and ‘Godot’; the broken men are waiting in a godless world, with the only ‘truth’ being uttered by the child messenger, who confirms that Godot will ‘come tomorrow’. This evidently turns out not be true; however the child remains the youthful constant who delivers the message with such resolution. Children are, as of yet, not subject to the nihilism which gnaws at the companions as they stand fruitlessly waiting.
Due to the fact that this is absurdist theatre, the audience becomes attentive to the natural and what they expect to be absurd. However the breakdown of communication and meaning found within an absurdist play constantly plunges the audience in a blur of parenthesis. Sometimes it is cathartic to hear the normal become so subverted; the overlapping script leads to the sense of being almost lost. However the suspended logic is freeing rather than frustrating, due to the effortless execution. Lucky’s speech in particular condemns academia and academic writing for their use of worthless adverbs: ‘thus’ and ‘consequently to name a few. Pozzo commands the stage’s attention as he says ‘I don’t like talking in a vacuum’, however Lucky reveals his elevated language to be completely vacuous in itself. Waiting for Godot is as absorbing as it is touching; a disabling of the normal to make us question why we are alive. For me, after witnessing the Tobacco Factory’s production, the privilege of watching such carefully crafted drama is more of a good enough reason to exist.
Esther Bancroft, English Literature student, I:M Theatre Editor