It’s 3:45pm and you’re at a desk, waiting for someone to arrive. Or waiting for someone to call. They don’t arrive. Or call. The seconds clunk by. You’ve nothing to do but wait – the minute you get up to go to the loo will be the exact moment the phone or doorbell does ring – so what do you do? Answer: doodle. The black biro lodged familiarly between palm and aching fingers darts unconsciously across notebook page and, suddenly, there’s a tree. A scrawly, scrawny tree. A few branches, a scribble of trunk and bark.
The set design by Francis O’Connor for Druid Theatre’s Waiting for Godot contains just such a tree. A gentle scratch of black ink eclipsing out the blank, lit expanse behind it. Like so much about this interpretation of Beckett’s famous work, there is a gentle, homely quality to the tree. It’s the bored but oddly contented sketch created whilst on hold to Scottish Power, the inky, idle yearning for a brief bit of entertainment.
Which isn’t to create the impression there’s anything cutesy about either design or production, the quirks that make it familiar – domestic, almost – are what also make it brilliant. And the design, along with this scratchy tree, is also unashamedly artistic. This is set design that is made to be looked at (not to perform the faux-naïve function of ‘not getting in the way’ of the rest of the play). Like a National Gallery-hung painting, it even has a frame, a half-illuminated white shell locking characters and landscape in a box; the way people used to joke about the tiny people on the television screen being trapped inside the hulking lump of a machine (until TVs became bigger than real humans and Twitter made it quite clear there is not a race of teeny televisual elves, but all too real presenter-celebs inhabiting the same waking world as the television-watchers).
The cracked earth realm of Estragon (Aaron Monaghan) and Vladimir (Marty Rea) has a Surrealist bent to it – Dalí, of course, and Magritte for the bowler hats, but also Leonora Carrington and, with the fissures in the soil, Frida Kahlo. The rock used as a waiting room seat is closer to a giant egg in form than a lump of stone. Like really good pieces of surrealism, it’s precisely though its otherworldliness that it’s so recognisable or commonplace, an excellent metaphor for normalcy made up of a giant egg, the drought-ridden land and the moon on a stick.
Garry Hynes’ production does two giant favours to Beckett and the legacy of his work. One is to prove that there is no definitive interpretation of Godot, that the genius of the play resides in its shapeshifting amorphousness. Here, that means pulling out the dark, brittle comedy of the situation through knockabout filial comedy and, in a related manner, the solidified-over-years friendship between the two men. The other (and whoever runs the Beckett legacy fund should be writing a thank you note to Hynes right now if they haven’t already) is to make Beckett a joy to watch. Or rather, a joy to share in.
At their worst, productions of Waiting for Godot can emit a tedious feeling of smug in-joking. I used to think that the problem was Beckett was that Beckett didn’t want the audience to ‘get it’, he wanted to take the piss out of them on some level. Now I see that, like with so many authors and playwrights, the problem doesn’t lie with the original text so much as with the interpreters of it. It’s more that self-proclaimed Beckett fans often don’t want other people to ‘get’ Beckett because it makes them feel clever to be the only ones with access to this stuff. [Now switch ‘Beckett’ in the previous sentence to any other playwright/author/musician of your choice i.e. Shakespeare, Pinter, Joyce, all the French philosophers etc.]
But the best thing about Druid’s Waiting for Godot is how this generosity is replicated onstage. Didi and Gogo gently tease each other, or at most briefly bicker, but there is none of the cruelty or malice that other performances of the characters trade on. It’s sweet, loving even. Because when you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere, it’s best to be stuck in the middle of nowhere with a friend.
Waiting for Godot is on until 12 August 2018 at the Lyceum in Edinburgh. Click here for more details.