Times Higher Education Supplement

A good belly laugh was the last thing that I expected when I settled down in my seat at Bath’s Theatre Royal to watch Sir Peter Hall’s fiftieth anniversary production of Waiting for Godot. A conversation between two tramps struggling to come to terms with the repetitious boredom of their existence doesn’t seem like much of a subject for humour. Vladimir and Estragon’s crisp one-liners, though, touched and tickled at the nerve ends of my own experience, provoking everything from appreciative giggles to outright hoots of laughter in a way that was obviously being shared by the packed audience around me.

Some of the laughter came from the plain old-fashioned slapstick qualities of Hall’s production. When the slave Lucky was dragged on to the stage with a rope around his bleeding neck, his startling appearance was alleviated for me by the fact that he arrived dribbling copiously and spraying saliva in all directions in a manner that reminded me of Barry Humphries playing Sir Les Patterson. Having experienced Humphries’ repellent performance at first hand, I was glad that I was sitting a few rows back from the stage.

Most of the laughter, though, was that of recognizing familiar situations. The high point for me as an academic was Lucky’s wonderful speech towards the end of the first act. Lucky has been ordered to demonstrate how he can think, and responds with an incoherent monologue that reminded me of many a seminar that I have attended. The monologue goes on and on, with jargon words from different disciplines tumbling over each other as the speech gets faster and faster, until his master screams for someone to take off his hat. Taking Lucky’s hat off is the only way to stop him talking. Speaking as someone who has chaired many a colloquium, I only wish that it was always that easy to control a speaker’s time.

“How to handle time” is a central theme of the play. The tramps’ problem of passing it seems very different from the academic’s problem of finding enough of it, but Vladimir’s response of dignity and humour, and Estragon’s of frustration and anger, resonated strongly with the ways in which different academics that I have worked with handled their own time problems. The resonance was sometimes painful, and I was torn between laughter and sadness on more than one occasion. The power of the play is that the tramps’ apparently inconsequential conversation can stir up memories and touch personal experiences in this way.

The experiences that it touches can be very different for different people. My wife, who is a counsellor, found it to be a thought-provoking example of the co-dependency that often exists in relationships. Lucky is beaten and abused, yet keeps trying to impress his master Pozzo so as to be allowed to stay with him. The poignancy is that Pozzo is equally dependent upon Lucky, just as Vladimir and Estragon argue much of the time and yet can’t bear to be parted. Anyone recognize a familiar situation here?

Vladimir and Estragon began life as clowns in the first French production of Godot. It was Peter Hall who first turned them into tramps, and the strength of his latest production has been to retain their clown-like ability to hold up a mirror to ourselves and to provoke laughter, sadness and thoughtfulness in equal measure.

© This article is copyright Len Fisher. Please email Len Fisher to seek permission to reproduce part or all of the above article.

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