A Writer’s introduction to great theatre.
THE best piece of professional theatre I’ve experienced remains one of the first I ever saw.
We arrived on time, were seated amongst an array of other school groups, and waited for the performance to begin.
Eventually, a lone figure – one of the actors – walked sheepishly onstage to deliver an apology.
One of the school groups (a busload of students from the Central West, apparently) was late, and the stage management had decided to wait for their imminent arrival. It seemed a little inappropriate that one of the actors was selected to give us the news.
Whether he was playing Vladimir or Estragon was not clear – he wore the Chaplin-like baggy pants and bowler hat of Beckett’s main characters, and he sat on a chair, like the rest of us, and waited.
And waited … and waited … and waited.
As teenagers, we all did what teenagers do while they’re waiting. We got impatient. We gossiped. We heckled one another. We heckled the actor. We did everything we’d predictably do. I recall going inside myself, my outer shell not showing impatience, but I was seething inside, thinking: “Typical country school, couldn’t leave home on time … now we won’t have any shopping time before we have to go home on the train.”
Eventually, it seemed even the actor had waited enough. He sat upright and addressed us, but not to make a further announcement. The lights went down suddenly, leaving only a spotlight on his face, and, using Beckett’s words, he berated us all for being so foolish as to believe his cunning little trick of making us understand, whether we liked it or not, what this classic piece of Absurdist Theatre is really about.
And that wasn’t all. There were no other actors to this production. Usually, Waiting for Godot has a cast of five. Very quickly it became apparent that we were going to be roped-into this production, quite literally.
And there was no such thing as personal space. The actor proceeded to push his way along certain rows, unravelling a rope as he went, thick rope that weighed into our laps. No amount of complaining got through to him, as he sectioned-off an entire block of the audience to evoke the roped-by-the-neck character Lucky, by whipping the rope with each hand. Many of the lines were delivered directly to people in the front row. “Poor them,” I thought, “lucky we weren’t seated down there.”
The effect got right under my teenager’s shell, cut through all my boundaries, and made me respond against my will.
I don’t think the actor took a curtain call. We poured out into the foyer, and I quickly disappeared on foot. I couldn’t wait for the bus – I just walked.
I strode through the city, walking over two kilometres, trying to rid myself of the feelings. Muttering how ‘bad’ the show was. Questioning why they couldn’t have done ‘Godot’ traditionally, whatever that meant.
I eschewed the shops, too unsettled to think about more than these feelings, got on an early train by myself, and settled into my seat feeling like a bit of an idiot.
The rhythmical rocking of the train unravelled me bit by bit, until I could reflect, at a distance, on what a brilliant production I had experienced.
It lead to me following a career in the performing arts, hoping to be a part of an industry which could affect people that way.
In two decades, I have never been quite so literally ‘moved’ by a piece of theatre.
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.