JOYCE MCMILLAN on WAITING FOR GODOT at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, TOWN BLOODY HALL and THE LIBRARY at the Arches Theatre, Glasgow, and DJUPID (THE DEEP) at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts, 16.4.09.
Waiting For Godot 5 stars *****
Town Bloody Hall 4 stars ****
The Library 2 stars **
Djupid (The Deep) 4 stars ****
LIFE IS A CABARET, old chum. Or a maybe it’s a music hall turn, desperately tap-dancing in the dark; or a seventy-year performance in which we steadily construct a series of identities; or, in this age of bite-sized therapy, just a series of behaviours that shape our minds, rather than vice versa. It’s been a dazzling week in Scottish theatre, from the heights of a magnificent all-star Waiting For Godot at the King’s Theatre in Edinburgh, to the labyrinthine depths of the Arches in Glasgow, where director Jackie Wylie’s new Behaviour Festival burst into life with a series of short, sharp shows from the cutting edge of theatre. But what all of these shows have in common is a shared interest in the link between performance and life itself: and it’s perhaps because they bring to the play such a long and rich experience of both, that the all-star cast of Sean Mathias’s great production of Waiting For Godot, now on a pre-London tour of the UK, are able to make such a warm and richly human piece of popular theatre out of a text often dismissed as difficult and obscure.
Originally set at a bleak crossroads, where two old tramps wait for a Mr. Godot who never comes, Samuel Beckett’s great 1953 absurdist classic is gently transferred, in Stephen Brimson Lewis’s memorable design, to the stage of a ruined or bombed-out theatre. And here, Mathias assembles the kind of vintage cast of which most directors can only dream. Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, who play the bowler-hatted double-act Vladimir and Estragon, are both close to their threescore years and ten. Ronald Pickup – in stunning form as the passing servant Lucky, routinely abused beyond endurance by his wealthy boss, Pozzo – will be 70 this year; Simon Callow, who plays the roaring, impossible Pozzo, is 60. Yet all four are still full of life. And their performances are full of a rich, enduring wisdom about how we find our sense of ourselves reflected in the eyes of others; and how – whether we are professional actors or not – we fear the ultimate oblivion of not being recognised, not being seen.
It’s one of the great features of Beckett’s play that despite its abstract style and setting, it never seems detached from the experience of the increasingly godless century in which it was written; and for all her youth, Arches award winner Nic Green has that same ability both to engage with history, and to set about transcending and transforming it through performance.
Her award-winning show, Town Bloody Hall, is the middle section of a feminist trilogy about where women are today, 39 years on from the publication of The Female Eunuch. Inspired by a film of a famous debate which took place at New York Town Hall in April 1971 – in which a panel of four feminists, led by Germaine Greer and Jill Johnston, led a kind of conceptual revolution against the male Chair of the event, Norman Mailer – Green’s piece uses improvisation, political reflection, reminiscence, gesture, music and dance, all devised and delivered by a superb young company of five, to create a complex contemporary response to the event. There’s a shade too much repetitive dance and movement for my taste. But at its best, this passionate ensemble response to one of the great revolutionary moments of the past century is shudderingly powerful; and full of an aching sense of the freedoms still unwon, and of untold possibilities of joy and fulfilment still just beyond our grasp.
The second Arches award-winning show, Sacha Kyle’s The Library, seems lightweight by comparison. Set in a library where various lost souls dream, study, suffer and indulge in erotic fantasies, the show tours the horizon of a familiar twentysomething inner landscape, marked out not in politics or geography but in reassuring cultural landmarks, from old Brando movies to Jim’ll Fix It. Some interesting themes glimmer through the detail, from the joyless tyranny of modern higher education, to the way education and book-learning divide families and become instruments of class. But to say that Kyle fails to bring the themes together in a satisfying whole is to put things politely. And the final effect is often ike a twentysomething version of Radio 4 comedy at its most irritating; self-absorbed, apolitical, culturally narrow, and full of shallow comic gestures that lack any real humour or wisdom.
At Oran Mor, meanwhile, the Icelandic writer Jon Atli Jonasson – with director and translator Graeme Maley, and star actor Liam Brennan, in superb form – offer a simple, compelling and unforgettable a confrontation with the last things of life and death. Djupid (The Deep) is a 40-minute monologue for a young fisherman who, in the midst of a typically unresolved life, finds his ship sinking under him, and nothing ahead but a probable icy death. Jonasson’s award-winning play moves brilliantly from the absurdity of life to the pain of losing it, from the trivial to the most profound. And coming barely more than a week after the latest North Sea disaster, the play also reminds us of the knowledge of loss that binds together all the peoples of the seagoing north; the enduring sense that in the end, life’s last moments may have to be lived alone in cold and dark, with no witness or audience at all, except the god in which so few of us still believe.
Waiting For Godot at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, until 18 April; Town Bloody Hall and The Library at the Arches, Glasgow, until 18 April, and at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 22-25 April. Djupid (The Deep) at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until 18 April, then on tour to Aberdeen and Dundee, 27-30 April. Joyce McMillan’s full review of Waiting For Godot appeared on Tuesday 14 April.