Belly laughs from looking in the clowns' mirror

September 2, 2005

  • Waiting for Godot
    Theatre Royal Bath, Sir Peter Hall's 50th anniversary production, until September 3

A good belly laugh was the last thing that I expected when I settled down in my seat to watch Sir Peter Hall's 50th anniversary production of Waiting for Godot . A conversation between two tramps struggling to come to terms with the repetitious boredom of their existence doesn't seem like much of a subject for humour. Vladimir and Estragon's crisp one-liners, though, touched and tickled at the nerve ends of my own experience, provoking everything from appreciative giggles to outright hoots of laughter - a reaction that was shared by the packed audience around me.

Some of the laughter came from the plain old-fashioned slapstick qualities of Hall's production. When the slave Lucky was dragged on to the stage with a rope around his bleeding neck, his startling appearance was alleviated by the fact that he arrived dribbling copiously and spraying saliva in all directions in a manner that reminded me of Barry Humphries playing Sir Les Patterson. Having experienced Humphries' repellent performance at first hand, I was glad that I was sitting a few rows back from the stage.

Most of the laughter, though, came from recognising familiar situations. The high point for me as an academic was Lucky's wonderful speech towards the end of the first act. Lucky has been ordered to demonstrate how he can think, and responds with an incoherent monologue that reminded me of many a seminar I have attended. The monologue goes on and on, with jargon from different disciplines tumbling over each other as the speech gets faster and faster, until his master screams for someone to take off his hat.

Taking off Lucky's hat is the only way to stop him talking. Writing as someone who has chaired many a colloquium, I only wish that it were always that easy to control a speaker's time.

"How to handle time" is a central theme of the play. The tramps' problem of passing it seems very different from the academic's problem of finding enough of it, but Vladimir's response of dignity and humour, and Estragon's of frustration and anger, resonated strongly with the different ways that academics I have worked with handled their own time problems. The resonance was sometimes painful, and I was torn between laughter and sadness on more than one occasion. The power of the play is that the tramps' apparently inconsequential conversation can stir up memories in this way.

The memories of past experiences that the play evokes can be very different for different people. My wife, who is a counsellor, found it to be a thought-provoking example of the co-dependency that often exists in relationships. Lucky is beaten and abused yet keeps trying to impress his master, Pozzo, so that he will be allowed to stay with him. The poignancy is that Pozzo is equally dependent on Lucky, just as Vladimir and Estragon argue much of the time and yet can't bear to be parted. Anyone recognise a familiar situation here?

Vladimir and Estragon began life as clowns in the first French production of Godot . It was Hall who first turned them into tramps, and the strength of his latest production has been to retain their clown-like ability to hold up a mirror to ourselves and to provoke laughter, sadness and thoughtfulness in equal measure.

Len Fisher is an honorary research fellow in physics at Bristol University and author of Weighing the Soul: The Evolution of Scientific Beliefs .

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