Druid Theatre’s Waiting for Godot: “Very Aware of Itself”

The Everyman Palace plays host to Druid Theatre Company’s production of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot from March 20th to 24th after US and Irish theatrical runs. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with cast member Marty Rea.

It’s a classic of Irish theatre and the calling card of one of the country’s greatest playwrights, transcending the French culture that informed its creation and the Irish wit that brought its subsequent English translation to life. Waiting for Godot, a tragicomedy in two acts penned by Samuel Beckett, pits misfortunate protagonists Vladimir and Estragon (as well as their audience) against their own circumstances, the company of others, and questions of existence. A defining work of humour, absurdity and thought, it’s since been interpreted as social commentary, writerly absurdity, and even a commentary on marriage and ennui, on its way to exalted status as one of the English language’s most important works.

Galwegian troupe Druid Theatre’s interpretation of Beckett’s seminal play premiered with a sellout run at the 2016 Galway International Arts Festival, with their performance taking an unassuming attitude toward both negotiating the challenges and accentuating the upsides in the interpretative process for such a beloved work, according to actor Marty Rea. “I think what really stood to us is that we didn’t have any big, academic approach to it. We couldn’t ever meet anyone on that level about it. There’s none of us Beckett scholars, or anything like that. We were approaching it merely as a play we wanted to do, because we would enjoy it. The fun that you can have with it kind of eclipsed any academic approach, which might have made it a very different production in the end. When people talk about a fresh approach, it might be something to do with it. We never pretended to be experts, but we know how to put a play across, between the four of us.”

The subsequent presentations of the show at Galway International Arts were far better received than anticipated, coming in for massive critical praise from national press, and demand for subsequent touring. This would, of course, boost anyone’s confidence, but for Druid, it was simply a catalyst for expanding on their work. “It was a big surprise that people enjoyed it as much as they did. We were enjoying doing it, and we’d been playing for two weeks in the Mick Lally Theatre in Galway, about a hundred-seat space. As it turned out there was much more demand to go further afield with it. It’s also great to know that people can still enjoy this play as much as they do. People come into it for the first time and they wonder, ‘god, how did he write that, what was he thinking, etc.’ It’s great to know a play has as muscular a life as Godot does. It gives you great faith in theatre.”

The subsequent ‘Unusual Rural’ Tour of the play found the company heading to outdoor locations around the country, recontextualising the performance experience for Glencree, Inis Meáin and the Céide Fields. Rea was taken by the experience of performing the play in locations like the aforementioned, and their effect on their rendition of the play thereafter. “Godot is one of those plays that’s very aware of itself being in a theatre. In the play, we refer to the audience, (Beckett) had fun with that. So we lost a little of that when we went outdoors. The thing about these, especially Inis Meáin, was looking up into the sky, like the characters do for a long period of time. The weather at the time, we couldn’t tell the difference between the sea and the sky, it was just one big arch of grey. When we brought that back to the theatre, we had that experience then, of the vastness of the nothingness of that grey, and Inis Meáin was a great place to experience that.”

The following year, the ensemble’s Godot had a month-long run at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in April, prior to heading to Charleton, North Carolina’s Spoleto Festival USA in June, playing to capacity audiences in both venues. It provided for Rea and crew an interesting case study in the contrasts between Irish and American audiences, and the frames of reference that informed their enjoyment of the experience. “Spoleto is a very classical and opera-based festival. So, it’s a very refined affair. We thought, ‘hmm, how’s this going to work?’. We got a great response. They know it, alright, they’re aware of Beckett. But there were different laughs in different places, different responses. One that occurred to me: any references to the Bible, the two boys talking about the gospel, in America they were laughing away at those kinds of jokes. In that part of the country religion is a much bigger thing, the Christianity of it all, and it was chiming with them much quicker than it was when we were at home. (I don’t want to generalise, but) the Americans wouldn’t have the cynical same sense of humour as we do, so certain plays, there’s a change of reaction. We did Beauty Queen of Leenane the year before last, and (Irish audiences) would be roaring laughing all the way through it, we went to LA for it for six weeks, the response was much more devastated, they were affected by the huge tragedy of it all!”

Next month sees Druid’s Godot head to the Everyman Palace on MacCurtain Street, from March 20th-24th. The grand dame of Leeside auditoria has always been a home for Druid, and Rea is enthused about sharing the musings and tortures of Beckett’s Parisian misfortunates with a crowd that’s traditionally been very engaged with the theatrical process. “Well, I think I’m right in saying I’ve only ever played the Everyman in Cork. I don’t think I’ve played anywhere else. Very fond of it, there’s great new stuff, and fresh energy to the Everyman now. Cork’s always brilliant. Great audiences, great support for Druid always. And you always get a good, honest response. They pull no punches (laughs). It’s so good, though. You get great conversation with audience members in Cork. They actually engage in conversation about what they’ve seen, instead of the usual ‘wonderful, wonderful’ stuff.”

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