Before the tramps came the tramp. Beckett, exiled and pursued across occupied France, writing to question rather than create, to unsuccessfully interrogate his own reality like a man failing to pinch himself. Watt came out in wodges of scribbles, notebooks stuffed with lists and incidents which tumble over one another in an attempt to disentangle themselves from Cartesian anxiety. Enclosing Watt in a book was a bit farcical in the first place, and the published edition represents a scattershot summary of Beckett’s experimentation. Putting it on stage sounds positively careless, yet Barry McGovern performs a bleak sort of magic in bringing a fragment (or should that be smithereen?) of it to life in a brilliantly comic one-man reading.
Counterintuitively, given its non-story of a man employed in linguistic introspection on two floors of a mysterious house, Watt is one of Beckett’s more accessible prose works, and McGovern gleefully mines its inventive punning and Tyburn wit. Dressed in a tailcoat and suspended in a pool of light, McGovern creaks across the stage with a morbid curiosity and paranoid stare. An accomplished and experienced Beckett interpreter, his Irish brogue tumbles through the myriad lists and inversions of the fractured narrative. He combines gravity with a curious distaste, capturing that sense of cosmic bemusement which characterises Beckett’s lost souls. McGovern’s greatest achievement is his balancing of the innate humour of Beckett’s wordplay and the sense of menace that closes around Watt’s speculations.
The threat that hangs over the narrative is the philosophical terminus of Beckett’s pursuit at the hands of the Gestapo. Watt is drawn into an ontological game of cat in mouse, riven with sudden inversions in which the pursuer of meaning and identity finds himself hunted by meaningless and oblivion. Watt is a study of nothing undertaken by means of an obsessive consideration of everything, and McGovern has selected many of the finest and most worryingly relentless of its lists to dramatise. To come close to nothing Watt is beholden to an obsessive responsibility to acknowledge everything. Actions can be unpicked through repetition, objects undone by conjugation, just as the permutation of a key turned in a lock will be sufficient to unlock the door. Beckett describes Watt as in need of ‘semantic succour’, and his list-making and reflexive linguistics is a sort of plea for mercy in the face of the cold and hard futility of language. Watt’s compulsive list-making is an attempt to undo the world, to spring it open like a metal puzzle. McGovern’s portrayal sees him squinting at language, an eyebrow cocked, like an old man tuning a radio to find a human voice or a snatch of music in the sea of white noise.
McGovern’s performance is almost apologetically brief, a shame because he succeeds so admirably in explicating Beckett’s purposes without changing a single word of the text. Moments such as Watt’s retarded relations with Mrs Gorman become stinging comic routines: we know that they are everyday sorts of occurrence, but written down with any true attempt at narrative veracity – particularly if written down and then read aloud – they become absurd. Even a chaste, fumbling sort of romance is too complex for language, which we see is suited only to a particular and limited class of somethings.
Though McGovern’s selection of material highlights many of Watt‘s strongest passages, it also ties it to a chronological narrative that threatens to concretise its haunting ambiguities. Cramming together and cutting down events such as the unsettling appearance of the piano tuners and bookending the piece with a departure and arrival may be concessions to necessities of performance, but they also destabilise the book’s evasiveness. Onstage at the Lyceum, Watt‘s nothingness is excessively somethingy: the Higgs field of theatrical form (lights up/lights down) has done it a bit of a mischief.