Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Waiting for Godot premier at Vienna's Burgtheater

It's the 5th December and I am early for the Bochum Schauspielhaus's Vienna Burgtheater premier of Samuel Beckett's masterpiece Warten auf Godot. Others will be late. Others will miss it.

Trams fetching many of the theatre-goers have to pass the nearby Vienna University where students are in the fourth, or maybe it's the fifth week of protest. And, of course, thousands of visitors are flocking to Vienna's largest Christmas Market situated outside the Rathaus (the City Hall), directly opposite the Burgtheater's main entrance. It's all a little chaotic.

One mildly interesting aside, in view of the themes of the play I'm about to see, is that several homeless men, perhaps as many as twenty of them, men rather like the Beckett characters Estragon and Vladimir, are lending active support to the student protest, joining-in as it were, in order to spend some of their cold and foggy December nights in the warmth of the Audi-Max Lecture Hall.

Karl-Ernst Herrmann's scenery is, as usual, out of the ordinary. The Burgtheater stage has been dispensed with and there now hangs before us a great and golden picture frame; there to fix our attention on surreal and comic imagery; Magritte-like scenes frozen in time; the crescent moon, the orange sun, the white-black simplicity, the leafless tree. The small group of actors.

Beckett's two heroes are wonderfully played with gusto, humour and spirit. Ernst Stötzner (Estragon): loud with a voice like a man at the bottom of a hole and the convincing meandering amble of the down-and-out is exactly right for the role. Michael Maertens (Vladimir): high-pitched, stressed-out, is the would-be intellectual who strives against all the odds to bring comfort and hope to his bosom pal. The two tramps have come far in the wrong direction since the day long ago when they held hands at the top of the Eiffel Tower.

Top class performances too from Ignaz Kirchner (Pozzo) and Marcus Kiepe (Lucky).

For me the point, the message, was: What's the difference, if there is a difference, between Godot, who never appears, and Pozzo who appears twice and with his bag-carrier, his brainless slave Lucky on the end of a long dog-lead? It seems to be that if Pozzo is in reality Godot, there is no difference. Pozzo answers to any name. He is everybody. He could be anybody.

I think what Beckett is telling us is that God or God(ot) may control the affairs of Estragon and Vladimir (i.e. you and me), just as Pozzo controls the affairs of Lucky. Lucky must carry the weight of Pozzo's world, the heavy suitcase and so on. And we must carry our given loads too. Pozzo guides Lucky. The unseen God(ot) blindly guides us. We are like Lucky. We are told, on pain of punishment, to Fetch! Go! Stop! Halt! The invisible strings control us. We have no freedom worth speaking of. From the first story of Adam and Eve, our destiny has always been in the hands of another. Only the tree grows:

Pozzo: Ask me, ask me! Why doesn't he put his bags down!
Estragon: (finally screaming) OK, then, why doesn't he put his bags down!!!

To me that's Beckett's point in 20 words.

But of course this grim situation is not entirely without hope. There's always a little hope as we like to tell ourselves. The tree sprouts a leaf. And this single leaf, this work of nature, is our hope. Vladimir sees that the whole tree is in leaf. But Estragon sees no change. He wants to hang himself from the tree. The old rope, which is a belt to hold up his trousers, suddenly breaks. It's not yet his time. And so tomorrow the two tramps will have to return to the tree and wait there for God(ot) to come ...

We are all here to do Godot's work, to carry his load. Our relationship to the invisible is the relationship of Lucky to Pozzo. When we wait for Godot to appear we will wait for ever. Or at least until we are dead.

"Why do you write such things?" someone once asked Beckett.
"To look for the one who murdered me," he replied.

A good move by new director Matthias Hartmann to unwrap this Bochum production of Beckett's Warten auf Godot at the Vienna Burgtheater. A Christmas box not to be missed!

Samuel Beckett image:
- courtesy Wikipedia

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