Organizers of the Irish Gate Theater’s ambitious 19-play Beckett Festival have raised their brogue to reclaim the Dublin-born playwright as their own. Though he wrote his groundbreaking plays in France (and in French), Beckett’s English translations had the flow, the lilt, the sound of Ireland, they say. Conjecture no more: Walter Asmus’ “Waiting for Godot,” the focal piece of the sprawling festival, proves the point.
This is Beckett straight up — no hyper-stylization, no misguided attempts at modernization, no antic Hollywood stars. As spare and evocative as the text itself, Asmus’ production has the feel of the definitive — Beckett as Beckett must have imagined, not a single gratuitous gesture or intonation. Working on Louis le Brocquy’s elegant set — a backdrop the colors of brewing rain clouds, a sitting rock and a spindly three-branched cutout that seems more the suggestion of a tree than the thing itself — the talented cast is as much choreographed as directed, even as the movement seems utterly natural and unforced.
Commanding the John Jay Theater’s large, deep stage are Barry McGovern, Ireland’s foremost Beckett interpreter, as Vladimir, and Johnny Murphy as Estragon. As Didi and Gogo, as the characters call one another, the two actors have the tricky task of inhabiting Beckett’s gray zone between existential terror and vaudeville buffoonery. Under Asmus’ direction, McGovern and Murphy suggest the two conditions at once, no small feat even if it’s no more or less than the play demands.
“Keep it simple” was Beckett’s dictum to the Gate when the playwright first learned of the festival plans. (He died in 1989, two years before the Gate first presented the canon in Dublin; the American stagings are being done as part of Lincoln Center’s Festival 96.) And indeed, Asmus has taken the advice. When Lucky (Stephen Brennan), the servant who has willingly conceded all rights to his vainglorious master, Pozzo (well played by Alan Stanford), is called upon to dance, he merely straightens up from a bent-over crouch and awkwardly reaches skyward. Brennan infuses the movement — and the performance — with just a hint of menace that distinguishes the character from the melancholy slave usually portrayed.
Perhaps more unusual to Stateside audiences, though, will be Murphy’s turn as Gogo, the most clownish of the characters played most famously by those most clownish of American actors, Bert Lahr and Robin Williams. Where Williams, in Mike Nichols’ infamous 1988 Lincoln Center Theater production, unsurprisingly played up the humor in Gogo’s pitiable existence, Murphy trusts Beckett enough to underplay. His approach isn’t exactly deadpan (though some of the jokes are tossed out almost offhandedly) but a humor weighted with despair.
Murphy meshes perfectly with the brilliant McGovern. As the more philosophical of the tramps, McGovern gives Vladimir an air of resignation and submerged panic. When a young boy (Diarmaid Lawlor) arrives at the end of each act to announce that Godot will not be coming, Vladimir tells the boy to remember the two tramps to Godot. Where Steve Martin (in the 1988 production) played the scene wistfully, McGovern is closer to nervous dread. “You did see us?” he implores, as if to convince himself of his own existence.
McGovern’s approach, indeed the approach of the entire production, isn’t so much a re-imagining of the classic text as a stripped-bare take on its essence. The Gate’s confident staging makes a convincing case for claiming Beckett as Ireland’s own.