It is nothing short of outrageous that one of the very best new films from Europe is not being slated for theatrical release in the United States. The film is Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” originally produced for the Irish RTE television channel and slated for broadcast on American public television in January. The fact this extraordinary production is going straight to the small screen is evidence that too many people in the film business wouldn’t know how to market a great movie if one came their way…and “Waiting for Godot” is a great film in every sense of the word.
Arguably the most dissected play of the 20th century, “Waiting for Godot” has been presented in so many ways that it is difficult to consider any single production to be definitive. Sometimes the playfulness of Beckett’s absurd scenario is overplayed into heavy shtick; it is no surprise that overenthusiastic hammy clowns such as Bert Lahr, Zero Mostel, and the lethal combination of Steve Martin and Robin Williams have appeared in stage productions that played too hard for laughs. Sometimes the anguish and seeming hopelessness of the tale of the tramps Didi and Gogo waiting vainly for the celebrated no-show Godot immerses the production in sticky bathos; “Waiting for Godot” is widely performed by theater companies based in prisons, where the fate of Didi and Gogo can be appreciated by the ultimate captive audiences.
“Waiting for Godot,” as presented here, achieves the definitive balance between mirth and despair with sublime ease. Perhaps it is the good fortune of having an Irish cast (from Dublin’s celebrated Gate Theater) finding the magic in Beckett’s uniquely Irish take on the English language. “Waiting for Godot” is rich with enough puns, one-liners, wisecracks and cockeyed observations to recall the glories of vaudeville and music hall revues, but shining out of the fun are brilliant slices of profound statements and observations which bring down the pain of the world. When Barry McGovern’s Didi is informed by the child messenger that Godot is not coming, he asks the child to tell Godot that he saw him and Gogo waiting at the appointed spot. McGovern’s eyes then widen, his body arches forward as if to begin prayer, and his voice rings with a rueful post-script to the indifferent child: “You did see us, didn’t you?” This one line, delivered with such uncommon skill, captures the suffering of anyone who sadly equated the sense of self-importance with the need to be seen…even by a child.
Had “Waiting for Godot” been sent into theatrical release, even if it was limited to New York and Los Angeles for a week’s play, the film would earn Barry McGovern an Oscar nomination and countless critics’ accolades. As Didi, he creates a man whose dignity is constantly being chipped away by the elusive Godot’s continued absence and his own quiet recognition of a failed existence. Although faced with constant defeat, he does not lose trust in a turn of fortune. His penetrating eyes and balletic eyebrows find triumphs in the smallest of trivialities: spotting the first green leaves on a hitherto barren tree or locating the lone carrot hidden in a jacket pocket stuffed with turnips.
Perfectly matched to this performance is Johnny Murphy’s Gogo. His body has taken rebellion against him, as witnessed by a permanently hunched body, a scraggly beard that obscures his jaw and aching feet which are extracted from imprisoning shoes. Yet his eyes stare out in hope, often of a futile nature (expecting to know just why Godot’s presence is so important) and sometimes of a lethal interlude (admiring the barren tree for its potential to carry a noose from which he could escape forever). When the imperious Potso absentmindedly discards a chicken wing with a few slivers of meat stuck on its bone, Murphy’s Gogo stares at the object as if a heaven-sent meal was delivered by a wait-staff of angels. The performance is pathetic, heartbreaking, and surrealistically hilarious.
While the roles of the arrogant Potso and his abused slave Lucky are traditionally viewed as supporting roles, the respective performances of Stephen Brennan and Alan Stafford are anything but supportive. Brennan’s physically articulate bulk and booming beauty of a voice captures the sneering self-majesty of Potso, offering only the slightest hint of camp (most wonderfully in a squint through a monocle with an accompanied arch of an eyebrow). His Potso is not ridiculous, however, and when the character’s second act return as a blind man comes it is presented with the harrowing concept of a would-be titan unwilling to acknowledge the grimmest of defeats even as he requires help in finding his way down a rocky road.
Alan Stafford’s Lucky completes this quadruple crown with a haunting gaze of silent agony and a body bent over by years of complacent and perhaps masochistic suffering. His Lucky is representive of every slave, especially those who create and perpetuate their own captivity. The character’s sole speech, a wild babble of intellectual double-talk, is served here as a new textbook lesson for aspiring filmmakers. Director Lindsay-Hogg begins the soliloquy in a medium shot, with Lucky launching into his rant while Didi and Gogo look on from the far right corner of the screen in disbelief. The camera slowly tracks a semi-circular path towards Lucky. Didi and Gogo disappear from the frame as the camera gracefully slides in to a close-up of Lucky. As the soliloquy barrels into total madness and frenetic wordplay, the camera then cranes back slowly and brings forth a wild landscape of Lucky raving on a stony hillock while Potso cringes on a stool, his arms wrapped around his head to stifle the noise, and Didi and Gogo racing frenetically in horror trying to escape the noise spilling out of Lucky’s mouth. The power and perversity of Beckett’s imagination is brilliantly reconfigured with this extended single take, which itself is a masterpiece of film engineering.
Michael Lindsay-Hogg began his directing career in 1970 by capturing the deterioration of the Beatles’ communal genius in “Let it Be.” Although he never enjoyed a continued level of theatrical success and cinesnob praise, he directed some of the most sublime made-for-television films ever conceived, including “Brideshead Revisited” and the pioneering AIDS drama “As Is.” With “Waiting for Godot,” he has achieved a career best. Although “Waiting for Godot” is basically a single set piece, Lindsay-Hogg’s camerawork and blocking is so inventive that the theatricality of the work (which bogged down previous televised versions) is carefully reinvented to accommodate the cinematic medium. The result is not a filmed play (which the upcoming American television presentation is angling to declare), but rather a thoroughly cinematic experience.
“Waiting for Godot” is such a memorable feat that it is a pity Godot never arrived…for he missed one of the finest films of the year.