Nothing much happens and nothing much is said, but Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot was probably the most influential play of the 20th century. Aleks Sierz reports
WAITING FOR GODOT. By Samuel Beckett Royal Theatre, Northampton
First staged in Paris 50 years ago, Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot - described by one critic as a piece in which "nothing happens, twice" - is arguably the most influential play of the 20th century, because it not only challenged the way dramas were written but also how they were staged.
Set on an isolated country road, its first part shows tramps Vladimir and Estragon amusing themselves as they wait for the mysterious Godot. Instead of arriving, Godot sends a boy with an ambiguous message. Two other characters, the master Pozzo and his servant Lucky, also pass by.
In the second half, the same events, with some significant changes, are repeated. Rupert Goold, artistic director of the Royal Theatre, Northampton, directs the play as part of his Irish Season (in rep with Conor McPherson's The Weir). He says, "My production explores the question of Beckett's Irishness. I suspect that he was a much more naturalistic writer, and a much less self-consciously Absurdist writer, than we give him credit for."
Having cast an Irish company, Goold has "slightly downplayed the Irish accents because it was felt that Beckett's style was more Dublin Irish than rural". Playing Beckett with an Irish accent "highlights the Catholic references - they now sound less like religious metaphors and much more like ordinary conversation". It also "releases a kind of stoic humour" often missing from more stark productions. He also uses a naturalistic set, "with a real tree and not just an abstract symbolic tree, set in real terrain somewhere in the Irish countryside". The effect is "less expressionist than normal".
Waiting for Godot remains relevant "because of its influence on so many other plays and even on television shows - The Royle Family, for example, or The Office. Beckett's basic comic ethos is that if you strip away everything to the bare minimum any tiny event can be significant, and comic". He sees the play as essentially "about friendship and compassion - on stage, it is a much more human and touching play than it appears on the page". It still resonates today because it is "essentially about memory - and what happens when memory evaporates". For Goold "this was personally interesting because my grandparents are going through Alzheimer's at the moment. At the same time, the play is also relevant to our ideas of cultural memory - our society seems to have a shorter and shorter memory of its own history".
For younger audiences, Waiting for Godot is ideal because it's fun to watch, even though "it's bloody hard to read". It is well paced, logical and funny, and "rewards your attention". It also "sometimes feels as if it's happening in a playground - especially the bickering between Vladimir and Estragon".
At the Royal Theatre, Northampton, until March 1. Box office: 01604 624811 Education workshop February 20; post-show discussion February 26.