Sunday 20 May 2018

Theatre: Cheery Godot shuns Beckett's darkness

* Waiting for Godot Mick Lally Theatre, Galway
* Death at Intervals An Taibhdhearc, Galway

Rory Nolan, Garrett Lombard, Marty Rea and Aaron Monaghan in Druid’s production of Waiting for Godot
Rory Nolan, Garrett Lombard, Marty Rea and Aaron Monaghan in Druid’s production of Waiting for Godot

Emer O'Kelly

At one stage in Waiting for Godot, Didi explains to Gogo the reason why mandrakes scream when their roots are pulled out; and that's how I felt while watching Druid's interpretation of the Beckett classic. Beckett's roots are pulled out and cast to the wind in Garry Hynes's new production.

That's not to say it isn't as manifestly professional as one would expect. It is also adventurous, which should be a compliment. But when the adventure seems to walk away from Beckett's nihilistic, grey purpose, it denies the play's soul. It's so "in your face" as to approach the burlesque, and indeed many of the physical sequences are very recognisably clown-based.

That forceful thrust has always been Hynes's trademark in direction, and it usually works for her. But there are times when subtlety and restraint are not merely preferable, but absolutely essential; and striding and capering leaves one in a cheery post-circus mood rather than pondering the hopelessness at the core of existence.

Hynes is on record as being doubtful about undertaking the play, but says she succumbed to pressure from the team of actors who normally serve her extremely well; so maybe she should stick to authoritarianism. Because we have a striding, exuberant Didi from Marty Rea and an endearingly easily placated Gogo from Aaron Monaghan (I kept thinking of Manuel from Fawlty Towers.)

The approach almost comes off with Rory Nolan's Pozzo, since the character is a prancing self-important bully, albeit with emptiness at his core as becomes manifest when he reappears newly blind and helpless.

But the symbolism of just punishment for the smug of soul and hard of heart is left floundering due to the interpretation of his "pig-slave" Lucky, the shuffling hod-carrier.

Garret Lombard delivers his rambling and barely coherent rant standing fully upright, shouting it defiantly at the audience, chest thrust out, wild hair and long greatcoat making him eerily reminiscent of a 19th century political demagogue (think Daniel O'Connell in full flight.)

Although he does also deliver a sequence of desperate pathos as he crawls from beneath his master's recumbent body to take the lead in their terrible lives, while preserving the pretence of their old non-relationship: it's deeply moving.

Francis O'Connor's set is a triumph, a cross between arid crazy-paving and baked earth, and the tree a delicate structure of cane-work; and lighting is by James F. Ingalls, with movement direction by Nick Winston.

Admittedly the audience loved the production, chuckling happily throughout. But under their laughter, I'm afraid I thought I discerned an odd grinding sound which I identified as probably Beckett turning in his grave.

It's at the Mick Lally Theatre in Galway and will tour to Inis Meain, the Ceide Fields and Glencree in Co Wicklow.

I remember finding Jose Saramago's satirical novel Death at Intervals rather funny in a black, wry kind of way. That's not surprising, since he posits a situation where people have stopped dying. So the first problem is that Death's out of a job. And he goes on from there.

The director/producer Kellie Hughes has adapted the novel for the stage, and co-produced as well as directing it at the Taibhdhearc in Galway in conjunction with Galway Arts Festival. And the first difference from the original is that it's not funny. It's not funny at all.

The lack of humour isn't a problem, because the concept, the musicianship, and one half of the acting at least are wonderful. But it's a fairly distant take on the thrust of a work from a Nobel prize-winning writer.

The bored and unemployed Death has been scouting around the rehearsals for a piano recital, and finds herself unaccountably drawn to the artist. She confronts him (well, she picks him up) and when he gets uneasy after a bit of what can only be called stalking (I know, it sounds funny, it's meant to be funny, but as played in the piece, it isn't: it's more a kind of intensity fest) her excuse is that she has a letter to deliver, a letter that she has been trying to deliver to somebody, (anybody, really) since she was removed from employment. She wants to live again, thus creating her own, and humanity's paradox.

But as she becomes more obsessed with the pianist, whose preparations for his recital are increasingly disturbed by what is happening, Death learns the meaning of love, and love becomes consumed into the reality that its real power is in enduring beyond death. QED, as it were.

With or without the original sly and provocative humour, Olwen Fouere seems made for the role of Death, her body subsumed into voice and movement, a thing of all feeling and as much an instrument as the piano played (brilliantly) intermittently by the increasingly bewildered and distracted Raymond Scannell as the musician.

But the problem is that Scannell's vocals don't match his hands: he delivers his lines in a monotonous "da-da; da-da, da-da. Da-da" strongly at odds with both his musicianship and his fellow actor.

His score, though (co-composed with Alma Kelliher, who is also responsible for sound) is wonderful, and the superb lighting and set are by Michael Cummins.

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