Act 1, Scene 1…Enter Godot

I learned something new the other night, which is always fun, but this was quite profoundly important – important to someone who fancies himself as a bit of a litterateur and critic at any rate.

It was this: I had never properly understood the importance of a performance to give meaning to a play text.

Seems obvious, I know (and I feel a real dunce on reflection), but until I saw the recent STC production of Waiting for Godot, I had never quite realised that the play is a comedy.

What makes it worse is that I studied the text at uni – and did very well in that course, if I do say so myself. But I’d never actually seen the play, so had never had the benefit of a performance to bring the words to life.

Of course, I’ve read plenty of other play texts and never had a problem getting jokes (if they were there) or perceiving the drama. Shakespeare’s fairly straightforward on paper – likewise Arthur Miller – but Godot is an absurdist piece and must be performed to give the words the additional dimension that is only ever dormant in the text.

Having said all that, not just any performance will do. My colleague Eileen (herself an actor of ability and repute) told me she had seen a different performance of Godot ten years prior, and it wasn’t funny. Well, Hugo Weaving (Vladimir) and Richard Roxburgh (Estragon) were funny.

More than funny, they were outstanding. This was a performance full of passion and venom; love and loathing; energy, ennui and despair. Exactly the kind of performance needed to give full effect to the author’s vision, and I have no doubt Samuel Beckett would have been first to stand applauding at the curtain.

Phillip Quast was also fantastically evil and imperious as Pozzo and Luke Mullins’ Lucky made me deeply uncomfortable while also making me laugh. The cast and the performance was nothing less than world class, which is pretty much what it takes to make this play watchable – anything less and the whole thing collapses like a house of incomprehensible cards.

I walked out feeling that I genuinely understood what Beckett was trying to say, rather than just sealing it off in a compartment of my mind with the label: ‘existential play about the futility of the human condition’.

God knows what I wrote in my essay at uni about it, but now I get it.