Blackbird Theatre's Waiting for Godot is respectful and moving

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By Samuel Beckett. Directed by John Wright. A Blackbird Theatre production. At the Cultch Historic Theatre on Thursday, December 29. Continues until January 21

Maybe it’s time for a Waiting for Godot set in IKEA. Seriously. Blackbird Theatre’s mounting of Samuel Beckett’s 1953 masterpiece is respectful—intelligent, often funny, and sometimes moving. It doesn’t re-envision the play for contemporary audiences, however, and for me, at least, that’s what’s needed, whether or not the Beckett estate approves.

In the script, Vladimir and Estragon wait on a country road by a tree for a man named Godot. They have only a vague idea of who Godot is, but feel compelled to maintain their potentially fruitless vigil. It looks a lot like they’re caught in existential hell, longing for a dead God or for meaning that no longer exists. They consider suicide, but are incapable of rousing themselves to such committed action. Instead, to stave off psychic chaos and to shut out the terrifying awareness of human mortality, they play social games; as partners do in many marriages, these two abuse each other for the sake of distraction, then make up.

A bombastic figure named Pozzo arrives. He controls his slave, Lucky, through voice commands—“Dance, misery!”—and by yanking viciously on the rope around Lucky’s neck. As he gorges himself on chicken in front of Vladimir and Estragon, who are subsisting on root vegetables, Pozzo feels very much like an embodiment of the bourgeoisie, and he says outright that Lucky was once his hired intellectual. “Think, pig!”

In this Blackbird mounting, William Samples makes a terrific Pozzo, a boldly coloured cartoon of entitlement. His gesture of greeting is an eccentric gentleman’s salute. There’s terror behind his own eyes, but his obliviousness to the suffering of others is extreme, even when he is crying the crocodile tears of the parsimonious philanthropist. “I have given them bones,” he says of Vladimir and Estragon. “I have talked to them about this and that, I have explained the twilight, admittedly. But is it enough, that’s what tortures me, is it enough?” Samples is note-perfect in all of this, and wickedly funny.

Adam Henderson knocks it out of the park as Lucky. When Pozzo commands him to think, Lucky launches into a lengthy monologue that often comes across as gibberish. But Henderson makes crystal-clear choices within it, so you can follow the speech as it devolves from a quasi-coherent discourse on the incomprehensibility of a personal god into a terrified rant about death. And for me, at least, Henderson’s delivery seems to contain hints that Lucky suffered a nervous breakdown in Connemara. (Henderson’s Lucky has an Irish brogue. Samples’s Pozzo is a British toff.)

The accents get a bit tangled with Simon Webb’s Estragon and Anthony F. Ingram’s Vladimir. Webb leans into his own Black Country (West Midlands) sounds, while Ingram’s Vladimir’s speech is more refined. For me, going back and forth between these two gears screwed up some of the rhythms in this hugely musical play; distracted by the contrasting sounds, I sometimes heard the accents rather than the lines.

That said, both actors deliver strong work. I especially enjoyed the buoyancy, punctiliousness, and depth of Ingram’s Vladimir. “Was I sleeping while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now?” Ingram delivered the questions with such stillness that I heard them like never before. And, accents aside, there are some beautiful riffs in this script that Ingram and Webb play masterfully. Speaking of the dead, they say, “They make a noise like feathers./Like leaves./Like ashes./Like leaves.”

Under John Wright’s direction, there’s some funny comic business, including a tug-of-war that goes on with the rope around Lucky’s neck.

There’s a fifth character, too, a boy, who is played here by Zander Constant. Constant is excellent. He brings as much ennui to the piece as any of the adult actors. With the innocence of his youth, the combination is devastating.

Speaking of innocence, the play is the product of a more innocent time. A straight-ahead reading of Godot depends on a horrified reaction to the death of God in popular philosophy. But he’s been dead for a long time and we’re used to it. These days our alienation and terror are much more rooted in consumerism. That’s why I think that today’s Vladimir and Estragon are probably stuck somewhere on the second floor of a Swedish furniture store.

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