Some classic plays remain that way because of their mutability, or the way they shape to a directorial stamp—creative casting, a pared-down script, an imaginative way of thinking about setting. It is an understatement to say that Waiting for Godot is not one of those plays; Samuel Beckett’s estate is famously protective of the text and resistant to even the slightest tweak of the original. (I heard a gentleman say in the lobby of TFANA, only half in jest, “I’m sort of amazed they got away with fedoras instead of bowlers.”) So what the play–bleak and bleakly funny; iconic and yet having lost none of its strangeness–offers to both audience and directors is, to a certain extent, what nuance certain actors bring, and are directed to bring, to the text. So it’s a credit to director Arin Arbus and leading actors Michael Shannon (Estragon) and Paul Sparks (Vladimir) that I did see a different angle here, a slightly different arch to the thematic structure.
The play rises or falls on the fellowship between Vladimir (Didi) and Estragon (Gogo): down-on-their-luck tramps, seemingly trapped in an endless recurrence of a day spent waiting for salvation in the form of the always-surely-coming-tomorrow Godot. This production, featuring two actors with a deep and abiding real-life friendship, thus starts from a strong foundation. The same was true of another relatively recent high-profile New York production featuring Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, but the fact that Shannon and Sparks are a good twenty years younger than those illustrious Brits adds an additional weight to their plight. These aren’t old men whose lives have slowly dwindled into desperation and vagrancy; they’re men who should be in their middle-aged prime, holding a place in society, and yet here they are, battling ailments both physical and mental, dressed in rags, wavering on the line between suicidal despair and just plain desperation. (Susan Hilferty’s suits, especially on Vladimir, convey that there may once have been better times.) And the road on which they’re trapped may be the “country road” called for in the script, but the feeling isn’t rural nor pastoral. Riccardo Hernández’s set runs crumbling, dusty asphalt from one end of the space to the other, with a bright yellow “no passing” double line down the middle of it. (And what a metaphor that is–you can’t get ahead of the car that’s boxing you in.) Civilization may have abandoned its grip on this space, but it was once a modern place. This road used to go somewhere, even if no one remaining in these parts knows where.
What struck me here was that part of the decline, the stasis, of both men and landscape has to do with the fragility of memory. Vladimir and Estragon in theory have the same amount of reason for existential despair, yet Sparks brings a lightness to Vladimir, an agility of mind and body. Vladimir always seems to be in motion, always negotiating in his mind and trying to interrogate their situation. He skims over the ground while Shannon’s Estragon is often rooted into a rock, bowed over as if sinking into it. Shannon is a large, physically imposing man, but he almost seems to be crumbling in on himself, collapsing into the black hole of his own spirit.
Vladimir also seems to be the only one in the play with any grip on time—on what happened yesterday, who they met, where they’ve been. Estragon can’t remember the narrative with any constancy; he gets fixated on certain details, but with no sense of the whole. And when the play’s other duo, Pozzo (Ajay Naidu) and his slave Lucky (Jeff Biehl) come and go and come again, they too seem oblivious to what’s come before.
In some productions of Godot, the appearance of Lucky and Pozzo–their vicious power dynamic, Pozzo’s supercilious pomposity and Lucky’s sudden revelation of brilliance when commanded to think–acts as the center point, a climax of sorts in an otherwise cyclical and actionless play. Here, though, Lucky and Pozzo are just another thing that recurs, another part of the terrible pattern. Instead, it’s the first visit of the Boy (Toussaint Francois Battiste) and Vladimir’s tender concern for him and his absent, maltreated brother, even amid his eagerness for Godot’s rescue, that serves to break through despair.
Sparks’s performance, even in its most antic moment, is rooted in an enormous well of compassion—looking backwards lets Vladimir hold knowledge that may protect his compatriot, or the Boy; lets him imagine a future. And Estragon’s world-weariness is all the heavier for its Sisyphean quality of being sent back to square one daily. Shannon’s outrage at the injustice of the world feels genuinely fresh, because to Estragon it is.
When your life has been reduced to waiting for a savior who won’t ever come–or in the case of Lucky, waiting for freedom that won’t ever come, you might think that a clean slate would engender optimism rather than the reverse. Those who can’t remember the past may be doomed to repeat it, but here memory doesn’t save you from that repetition–and yet that memory does seem to contain within it the possibility of change: the new leaves of spring. “Tomorrow everything will be better,” says Vladimir, and here, it’s possible he believes it. We don’t really know what good memory is doing any of them, in this environment of deprivation, cruelty (Estragon gets beaten by a gang every time he leaves this patch of road; Pozzo abuses Lucky terribly), and stasis, but the glimmer of hope in Vladimir makes us think that maybe there is some use in remembering the past, in learning from it.