Waiting for Godot is a pretty frustrating play – but it’s also one of the most engaging pieces ever made for stage. Estragon and Vladimir’s tedious dance of absurdity as they wait for an ever-absent Godot is furnished with witty lines, creative slapstick moments and worthy existential comments. The uncomfortable power of these opposing qualities is sophisticatedly mined in this collaboration between Talawa Theatre and the West Yorkshire Playhouse.
In this adaptation, the characters are expressive and dynamic, but don’t dent Samuel Beckett’s finely crafted and enigmatic dullness. Our men-in-waiting, Estragon and Vladimir (played by Patrick Robinson and Jeffery Kissoon, respectively) have such a variety of facial expressions, you half expect to see an Eyeball Choreographer credited in the programme. Both have managed to represent tiredness without being tiresome, and both bring charm, life and humour to every line, no matter how many times is is repeated in this circular script.
Hypocritical master Pozzo is also inventively re-imagined here. While Estragon and Vladimir stand alone, Cornell S John’s character occasionally peers over the forth wall to engage us in his dislocated world, of which he has artificially and arbitrarily mastered control. Estragon and Vladimir have derived meaning from their isolation; in contrast, the Pozzo of this production is crafted to be utterly dependent on the world outside his avant-garde island. Refreshingly, the question of who is the most deluded remains unanswered.
Pozzo is also defined in relation to his slave, Lucky. Visually connected by an almost comically long rope, the polarised duo’s relationship of power is as visibly evident as it would be if played out on a see-saw. Guy Burgess’s Lucky is pale and hunched, his very posture generating waves of pity even as Pozzo’s arrogant comments fill the theatre with laughter. But it’s during Lucky’s ‘Think’ that Burgess truly shines. For 700 words or so, Burgess is a sorcerer of language. With madly gesticulating arms and eyes as wild as his long, white hair, he fuses nonsensical speculations in Beckett’s thrilling mockery of reasoning. It comes as no surprise that this speech is immediately followed by applause. Unfortunately, this helps to break Burgess’s spell and contributes to an inevitable pre-interval lull, which I’m confident that nothing short of the appearance of Godot could ever combat.
Alongside this celebration of nonsense falls a degree of creative deliberation that is difficult to ignore. In many plays, casting decisions that take race into consideration can often bring elephants into the room. In Talawa’s adaptation, it is quite the opposite – to the extent that race in this piece seems almost irrelevant and yet it’s almost compulsory to speak of it. Beckett’s script is open to limitless interpretation and speculation, as every other line seems to work in opposition to the one before it. As a result, aside from a few laughs when Estragon utters a nonsensical comment in hearty, nonplussed patois, the decision to have a completely black cast adds little to the play.
Perhaps, then, what matters most is not that these characters are all black, but that they have been brought together to portray an artistically reinforced sameness. Performed away from an <LINK:American South torn by racial segregation, poverty and Hurricane Katrina,http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2012/jan/31/all-black-waiting-for-godot> it seems contrived to add racial interpretations to this piece. That said, this very deliberate casting brings a sense of meaning and an almost godly forethought, which acts in tension to a timeless and undefined setting. Life may be meaningless, we may wait and wait for something to happen – and in this play that could be the appearance of the elusive Godot himself, or the Christian deity who is so frequently alluded to – but in this obvious creative decision a greater power is exhibiting an evident control. Through this, we know that there is meaning beyond what we see. Talawa’s adaptation can only be enriched by this fact.