Blackbird Theatre is back at the Cultch with what has become for them something of a post-Christmas tradition: a new staging of one of the darker entries in the classic repertoire. This time it’s Waiting for Godot. Richard and I attended the second of the two preview performances this past Wednesday (the play opened last night and runs through January 21st). Despite how much I’ve enjoyed this company’s work in the past, I have to say I was disappointed.
Could it be that the production was almost too reverential? Notwithstanding the degree to which Beckett’s famously litigious estate has inspired an almost slavish devotion to the text among even the most experimental of contemporary interpreters, can we not at least move a smidgen beyond the same tired accents (Gogo’s Irish brogue setting him apart from the only slightly posher Didi) and the familiar Little Tramp costumes we’ve seen hundreds of times before (including Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s excellent version for the 2001 Beckett on Film series, starring Barry McGovern and Johnny Murphy)? What about jeans and hightops and hoodies and baseball caps instead, and a bit of a hip-hop lilt to the music of Beckett’s writing? What about a post-apocalyptic, inner-city setting with condoms instead of leaves on the tree in Act Two? Granted, it’s harder—given the famous stage directions that open both acts—to think of tampering much with the limitations Beckett deliberately places upon the set, though even here I have some quibbles with Blackbird’s choices.
Thus invariably knowing what’s coming, the key for audiences familiar with the play is to find new (or renewed) subtleties in the performances. Anthony F. Ingram, as Vladimir, and Simon Webb, as Estragon, certainly have wonderful comic chemistry. I laughed out loud and at great length last night. And yet I still felt the nearly 2 ½ hour performance dragged. In this regard, I felt that some comic bits—including the opening sequence with Gogo’s boots—went on a bit too long, while others, like my beloved Laurel and Hardyesque bowler hat sequence from Act Two, were given short shrift. Likewise, where the visit by Pozzo (a wonderfully expansive—in all senses of that word—William Samples) and Lucky (Adam Henderson, who wears that rope with the best of them) flew by in Act One, their much shorter stay in Act Two seemed interminable, with too much time spent by all four actors lying prone on the stage floor. I also didn’t understand Pozzo’s falsetto in Act Two, which seems to emasculate him unduly.
However, what was most missing for me last night was an equal sense of tragic pathos to balance out the comic absurdity—a problem with many recent high-profile productions of the play on both sides of the Atlantic, with the notable exception of Paul Chan, Creative Time, and the Classical Theater of Harlem’s staging of the play in 2007 in the post-Katrina Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Watching Ingram’s Didi and Webb’s Gogo stare up at the tree and openly contemplate suicide, I couldn’t hear the aching desperation that should accompany their kibitzing about not having a rope, like the sound of ashes both characters hear in the rustle of the tree’s two leaves. And, where, in Didi’s crucial soliloquy at the end while Gogo dozes—“Was I sleeping, while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now? Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today?”—is the cruel anguish that should underscore, like a knife blade, their impossible situation of both not being able to go on, and having to go on?
Back to that quibble with the set. I can’t for the life of me figure out why director John Wright and designer Marti Wright opted not to make use of the Cultch Historic Theatre’s own studio stage, choosing instead to construct a square raised platform above it, with ramps off it to either wing. I get that this visually reinforces the constrained and diminished circumstances in which Didi and Gogo find themselves, not to mention reminds us that surrounding their few square metres of shared space is a swampy bog, beyond which are thieves and ruffians lying in wait. However, it makes things somewhat awkward for the Boy (a charming Zander Constant), who enters from audience level at the end of both acts, and must interact with Didi for much of his brief time on stage with his back to us.
Other critics might think otherwise, but for me this was a rare miss from a local troupe that has otherwise distinguished itself as a bold interpreter of the classics. To be fair, it was a preview performance, and maybe my mood was soured somewhat by the person who threw up in the balcony hallway just as the performance was ending. Either way, I’ve at least waited to post this review till after the show has officially opened.