Getting the Skinny on Godot

Jennifer Tarver and Brian Dennehy praise Samuel Beckett’s signature spareness

By Claire Mastrangelo

In a 2005 article for the British newspaper The Guardian, Sir Peter Hall – who fifty years earlier had directed the English-language première of Waiting for Godot at the Arts Theatre in London – recalled the opening night of Samuel Beckett’s definitive tragi-comedy. He described what happened when the actor playing Estragon delivered the line “Nobody comes. Nobody goes. It’s awful!”

“At this point,” wrote Hall, “a loud, very English, voice intervenes from the stalls: ‘Hear! Hear!’ And clearly some of the audience agree. The next few moments of the play are drowned in cheers and louder counter-cheers. The Godot controversy has begun.”

Since that historic day in 1955, theatre artists, critics, scholars – and audiences – have come to embrace Waiting for Godot as a masterpiece by the most influential playwright of the twentieth century. Part of its brilliance, say two of the artists who will be working on Stratford’s 2013 production, is the remarkable economy of its writing.

“Beckett’s artistic goal,” suggests director Jennifer Tarver, “was a process of removal, simplification, isolation and minimalism. For me, any time you strip away things that are unnecessary, you’re closer to the truth. It’s like when you distil balsamic vinegar: it becomes more powerful and more pungent and thicker and richer. You’re left with this incredibly strong substance.”

The play centres on two tramps, Vladimir (to be played by Tom Rooney) and Estragon (Stephen Ouimette), who are stuck by the side of a desolate road waiting for the mysterious Godot – a figure who never appears and is never explained. Meanwhile, they desperately try to pass the time in ways that are both hilarious and poignant.

Godot is about waiting,” says Ms Tarver. “I don’t mean to be glib; it’s one of the ways that Beckett described the piece when he was asked about it. And I think it’s a very human condition: it’s something we spend a lot of our lives doing.”

Brian Dennehy, who starred in Ms Tarver’s acclaimed 2008 production of another Beckett play, Krapp’s Last Tape, will take the role of Pozzo, while
Randy Hughson will play Lucky. “Godot is a very funny play,” says Mr. Dennehy, “but it’s also very pointed and very specific about the significance-slash-insignificance of life.” However, he warns, one should not aim for profundity in playing the piece.

“You have to understand the comedy and how important the comedy is to the play,” he says. “And you have to play for the humanity of the characters. The genius of Beckett is that he did it with such spare, lean, skeletal images and words.

Godot is the greatest thing you can do in theatre,” he concludes. “It’s incredibly philosophical and deep and significant – and very, very funny.”


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