“Waiting for Godot” is a masterfully minimalist play that allegorically expresses how we all strive to keep at bay the sense of life’s ultimate futility. After all, there is only one certainty in our lives: our death.
Often regarded as the seminal work of contemporary drama, the absurdist play was originally written in French in 1948/49 by the 1969 Nobel laureate for literature, Samuel Beckett (1906-89), and it premiered in 1953 at the Theatre de Babylone in Paris, the Irish writer’s adopted hometown.
Following its French success, Beckett translated the play into English and it became renowned worldwide. In 1998, nationwide research by the London-based National Theatre in Britain deemed it as the most important English language play of the 20th century.
With so much fame, and receiving so many accolades, most theater lovers in Japan are likely familiar with “Waiting For Godot’s” premise. And, with many now still reeling from the incomprehensible consequences of the recent earthquake, it’s message seems more apt than ever.
Spanning two days in the almost entirely uneventful lives of two men, Vladimir and Estragon, who are idly waiting for someone named Godot to turn up, the only “action” of the play is supplied by two other protagonists, Pozzo and Lucky, who pass through briefly. In act I, Lucky enters, weighed down with baggage and with a rope around his neck, the other end of which is held by Pozzo, like a master with his slave. In the second and final act, Lucky leads in a blind Pozzo, who is still holding the rope tied around Lucky’s neck.
Despite the dramatic-sounding rope, there is a stream of mundanity to even these scenes, in which gems of wisdom and insights into the human condition sparkle as they flash by. And it is this that makes Beckett’s work the phenomenal piece it is.
For the New National Theater, Tokyo’s production of this well-known play, French literature scholar Shoichiro Iwakiri’s newly translated script from the original French version, has been chosen — a move from translations of the English version, which are subtly different and most commonly used in Japan.
At the helm, is director Shintaro Mori, 34, from the Theatrical Group En, who recently attracted acclaim for his direction of “The Lonesome West” and “A Skull in Connemara,” two great contemporary works by English playwright Martin McDonagh.-
To Mori, who was offered the director post by Keiko Miyata, the NNTT’s newly appointed artistic director, “Waiting For Godot” posed the greatest challenge in his career to date, and one that he jumped at to accept. In the play’s program, he explained that he became increasingly convinced throughout rehearsals that Beckett’s piece, though often considered as a great work of literature, is still primarily a theater piece, since its real import can only be conveyed through actual performance. He also noted that the work may now particularly resonate with the audiences’ imagination if, like him, they were thrown into a different reality after the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake, and didn’t know where to turn amid the chaos.
At the NNTT, the pit was divided, unusually, into two auditorium sections either side of a long bare fashion runway-like stage, in the center of which stood a spindly tree. To finish this gracefully minimal aesthetic, an orb of light, representing the moon, hovered high up above the tree. Approaching each other from opposite ends of the stage and dressed in shabby suits and hats, in stepped the two old friends, Vladimir (Isao Hashizume) and Estragon (Saburo Ishikura) The pair sat down to continue their seemingly lifelong preoccupation of chatting about the meaning of life and discussing just when the mysterious Godot would appear.
Despite the aesthetically apt appearance of the long stage, the physical distance at which it put the actors unfortunately hampered the symbiotic intimacy of the protagonists’ relationship that should have emerged through their jokey and scolding banter. Vladimir and Estragon often ended up so far apart that their dialogue appeared spoken into the air like philosophical monologues. In Act 1, they barely made eye contact, let alone display the characters’ relationship or the universal human values that brought the original play so close audiences’ hearts.
Perhaps this was a reflection of behavior in Japan, where some hesitate to make eye contact with others. But even so, such a highbrow approach of placing the actors into worlds of their own only rendered the staging of an already subtly sophisticated play, into an overly cerebral one.
By Act 2, the characters’ affinity with each other, and audience response improved, but there was still a sense of disappointment about this production — especially when it comes from someone as gifted Mori, who clearly did have the best of intentions.
Nonetheless, Japan is now desperately soul searching for a new post-March 11 direction, and the simple, unexpectant ways of the lovable good-for-nothings Vladimir and Estragon, as well as the unusual relationship of Pozzo and Lucky, should give the audience food for thought.
“Wating for Godot” runs till May 1 at the New National Theatre Tokyo, a 2-minute walk from Hatsudai Station on the Keio New Line. For more details, call the NNTT at (03) 5352-9999 or visit www.nntt.jac.go.jp. Nobuko Tanaka’s theater blog (in Japanese) is at thestage.cocolog-nifty.com.