Why are we here? Waiting for Godot aims to find out

There may be a reason it’s been 40 years since a professional theatre company has attempted to mount Waiting For Godot in Edmonton – this thing is a real bitch.

The creative team from Wishbone Theatre is working hard to “find the truth” in Samuel Beckett’s absurdist masterpiece before opening night at the TransAlta Arts Barns on Thursday – and frankly it’s making director Chris Bullough’s head hurt. Even though the playwright has been dead for 23 years, the director talks as though Beckett is still here, hovering, judging, silently watching every aspect of the production with a sardonic frown and high expectations, and giving no hints.

“I feel like I’ve gone down the rabbit hole,” Bullough says. “There are so many layers. It didn’t seem like it was going to be this hard, but when you’re in the thick if it, it’s insane the work he’s asking you to do. It’s a monster.”

Doing the Full Beckett Immersion has to affect one’s mood. The director adds, “Some mornings I’ll wake up and think, what the hell? What am I?” Such are the dangers of Existentialism they don’t warn you about in college. Bullough laughs, “Yeah, they should put a warning label on it: Do not attempt to produce this play!”

He’s just kidding, of course. Everything will be just fine.

One of the challenges with Waiting For Godot is that you could talk about finding truths and motivations and meanings and dissect the absurdist symbolism of old boots and hats and trees and turnips, discuss the Freudian themes until you’re blue in the face without ever once mentioning what the damned play is ABOUT. It’s about two guys waiting for another guy. A couple of different guys come by. Everyone is bored and depressed and possibly psychotic. The guy they’re waiting for doesn’t show up. The end.

There. What’s so hard about that?

“It’s been analysed to death,” Bullough says, “But when you get the play up on its feet on and on stage like it’s meant to be, it becomes a different entity.”

Starring a team of four local actors – Nathan Cuckow, Glenn Nelson, Farren Timoteo and George Szilagyi – the Wishbone company did their research. The director says he’s seen the play twice in his life, along with clips from recent productions on both Broadway and London. He’s studied the play. He talks about all the Vaudevillian touches used by Beckett, who was said to have been a huge fan of silent movies and music hall culture. Waiting for Godot was the first play Beckett wrote after World War II, originally in French as “En Attendant Godot” and first performed in English in 1955. Audiences were bewildered. Reviews were terrible. “A really remarkable piece of twaddle,” said The Guardian. But something caught on there. A lot of theatre companies have since put their own twists and interpretations on Waiting For Godot, and of course Beckett “didn’t like that,” Bullough says.

He goes on, “We’re trying to figure out what he wants us to do. But it has to be our truth. We live in Alberta, we live in Edmonton. Lots of things struck me about the piece, like with the Occupy Movement and all the power in the world in favour of a small percentage of the population. This play has a lot to do with power. I’m not going to try to fit a square peg in a round hole. There are seven artists working on this, a collective creation. We’re all adding our own personal truth to the piece. It wants us to find the truth of each character in the moment, from moment to moment. What does Vladimir need from Estragon? And what does Pozzo need from Lucky? And why are they putting themselves into these power struggles? What’s it all for?”

Well, exactly.

One clue that there’s a hell of a lot more to Waiting For Godot than first appearances is in the public reaction. Many people know the name of the play without ever having seen it – or any theatre, for that matter. People who have seen it seem to be evenly divided between love and hate, no middle ground, Bullough says, “so you know something is there. It’s an amazing piece of art. When art tries to get close to the human essence, it’s going to be divisive.”

Waiting For Godot plays until Feb. 11, starting with a preview performance Wednesday night. Tickets online here.