“We are all born mad. Some remain so.”
It’s been a wait alright. Six years, in fact, for the first English presentation of Waiting for Godot at the Happy Days International Enniskillen Beckett Festival. Had Vladimir and Estragon – Samuel Beckett’s beloved vagabonds from his landmark play – had to wait six years in vain for Godot to arrive, they surely would have hanged themselves from that famous tree.
Previous editions of the festival have seen renditions in Yiddish, German and French – the language of the original manuscript – and now, like buses, two performances in English by different companies arrive back to back. The week before, Dublin theatre group The Corn Exchange break the duck with a very funny reading, followed this overcast Saturday morning, by actors from The Lyric Theatre, Belfast.
From the beginning in 2012, site-specific performance has been an intrinsic element of the Beckett festival curated by Directors Sean Doran and Liam Browne, but it would be hard to imagine a more appropriate environment for Beckett’s genre-busting play than this bleak, wind-swept plateau on a hill in the Fermanagh countryside.
The audience of twenty or so, like Waiting for Godot’s Estragon and Vladimir, has walked here, a good three miles into the foot-hills of the Cuilcagh Mountains, having been deposited by bus at a muddy pathway below. The pick-up at Enniskillen Castle had been at 8am. Too early for Beckett? Purgatory for the unconverted, no doubt. For the committed, on the other hand, this is theatre of the most evocative kind.
The walk upwards through a marshy meadow is done in pairs, as per instructions, to replicate Vladimir and Estragon’s bond. A herd of sheep crosses the pathway, also, so it seems, in pairs. Lichen hangs from a gnarled tree like old men’s beards. This strange, carbon-feeder is a symbiosis between a fungus and an algae – a mutualism not unlike Vladimir and Estragon’s relationship, whereby – despite the one’s stinky feet and the other’s stinky breath – they need each other.
The views from the highest vantage point are splendid. Fermanagh to one side, with Upper Lough Erne and its three hundred islands, County Cavan to the other, with The River Shannon snaking towards the Atlantic Ocean. This is border country.
A gulley and an old stone wall to the left of the pathway mark the geographical and metaphysical divide between Northern Ireland and The Republic of Ireland. Further on up, lying in a ditch amongst reeds and rough grass – perhaps similar to the one where Estragon gets yet another beating – lies a coil of rusting barbed wire and wooden fencing poles – a potent symbol of the delicate political balance in Irish/UK politics as Brexit looms – Waiting for Brexit – and as talk of a National Border Referendum slowly gathers voice.
But perhaps it’s all a diversion, a bit like Estragon and Vladimir’s surreal verbal exchanges, just to pass the time.
This production of Waiting for Godot is a rehearsed reading, which suggests that budgetary concerns prevented a full-blown performance. It matters not a great deal, as the play where nothing ever happens twice is essentially static in nature, bar the odd explosion of violence, the odd coming and going. Even sitting down or getting up is usually aborted, as though by gravitational pull as opposed to free will.
As for the actors, Seamus O’Hara (Vladimir), Frankie McCaffrey (Estragon), Kevin Trainor (Pozzo), Patrick McBrearty (Lucky) and Adam Dilworth (The Boy), well, they’ve all gone the extra mile, donning the appropriate theatrical garb: shabby coats and dented bowler hats for the tramps, Vladimir and Estragon; a whip for the cruel Pozzo; a rope around the neck for his luckless slave, Lucky. Directed by Jimmy Fay, the actors perform with the requisite doses of passion and tragi-comic despair.
And they do so against the backdrop of Anthony Gormley’s Tree for Waiting for Godot, a striking, thirty-seven-piece stainless steel sculpture – other-worldly looking against the rugged, windswept setting.
The two odd couples respectively have been “blathering about nothing in particular” for a long time. Close to half a century, it seems. Yet, in the nonsense verbal fusillades touched by strange wisdom – and provoked by chicken bones, a rock, the tree, the rope, the whip, and so on – reside the symbols of hope and hopelessness, suffering and compassion, the desire for escape or salvation.
In the desperate pronouncements of desire for independence – “There are times when I wonder if it wouldn’t be better for us to part”, muses Estragon – and in the often tender acknowledgments of interdependence – of love, in fact – reside universal meaning. When Pozzo returns blind in Act Two, the rope around Lucky’s neck has changed from leash to life-line. Fickle indeed, are the fates.
At the end of the performance, with the audience stretching their legs, a man drives past on an all-terrain quad bike, a border collie zig-zagging behind him as though herding the vehicle. “Are you Godot?” shouts one of the actors, momentarily back in character. There is no reply as he passes by. We’ll never know now.
People come and go. So too, as history teaches again and again, do borders. In the end, however, as Vladimir reminds us: “The essential doesn’t change.” Ian Patterson
Photos: Courtesy of Matthew Andrews