Godot is unexpectedly contemporary
Waiting for Godot
(out of 4) Written by Samuel Beckett. Directed by Daniel Brooks. Until Oct. 7 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane. Soulpepper.ca or 416-866-8666. To begin the second act of Waiting for Godot, if you accept that there are only two acts and not an infinite number in this classic existential comedy by Samuel Beckett, Vladimir stands alone on the stage and sings to himself a song about a dog that was beaten for stealing a piece of bread. In the new production on now at Soulpepper Theatre, Diego Matamoros’s Vladimir sings in a Springsteen-like growl, reaching a rousing crescendo with the phrase, “Then all the dogs came running, and dug the dog a tomb.”
Trade his shabby tweed jacket, overcoat and beige trousers for blue jeans and a white undershirt, and change the scenery to a New Jersey industrial park instead of a barren limbo space (devastatingly designed by Lorenzo Savoini), and Vladimir suddenly becomes an icon of the working class American man, and his steadfast, faithful wait for the unknowable Godot hits an unexpectedly contemporary note.
Director Daniel Brooks returns to Beckett after two acclaimed productions of Endgame at Soulpepper (one in 1999 and one in 2012), the latter with Matamoros as the servantlike figure Clov. The two are joined by another longtime Soulpepper favourite, Oliver Dennis, as Vladimir’s partner in waiting Estragon. The three of them unite, buoyed by the ensemble nature of the Soulpepper company that employs the same roster of names year after year, creating a personal and professional ease that’s noticeable on the stage, with an uncomplicated, natural approach to Beckett’s text.
Brooks is not afraid of the dark, cynical nature of the play, but he’s also not forcing Vladimir and Estra- gon’s plight to represent anything larger than themselves. Dennis and Matamoros, ridiculously well-cast for their parts, are humanized through their relationship to each other. There is a sense of deep mutual knowledge and comfort, endless annoyance, some codependence, and true love and care — symptoms of any long-term friendship (and who knows, this could be the longest friendship one can imagine). They fight intensely, they tease each other, but when Vladimir asks his friend “Will you not play?” they revert to children’s roughhousing and role playing.
For the first time, I found myself wondering about their relationship beyond the immediate circumstances of their predicament, waiting for an authoritative figure that never arrives — where did they grow up, how did they meet, do they have children and where else on earth should they be at this moment? Like Springsteen was in rock ’n’ roll, they are the everyman placed on the pedestal of ab- surdist theatre to represent the suffering of the many.
Paying due to Beckett’s ability to capture so much thought, pain, hope and humanity, Brooks’s production emphasizes how malleable Waiting for Godot is. Political, philosophical and religious interpretations are still present, depending on whatever might be on your mind before taking your seat.
For this particular critic, the relationship between the verbose, powerful Pozzo (Rick Roberts), who walks his silent slave Lucky (Alex McCooeye) on a rope, was a clear representation of the imbalance of wealth and power in the political and economic spheres. Pozzo dines on chicken while Lucky gets the bones (and Estragon snacks on a carrot, perhaps the metaphorical carrot that’s constantly dangling in front of the North American working class?)
Of course, Pozzo wouldn’t be able to travel anywhere at all if it weren’t for the hard work and perspiration of his slave, but he rules over him through force, controlled and limited rewards, and gaslighting. However, upon their return in the second act, Pozzo has become weak, as has Lucky, and in both of their desperate states, come to a basic halt. In perhaps an unintentional reference by costume designer Michelle Tracey, Pozzo wears a deep-red scarf around his neck, reminiscent of another foolish political and business leader who fancies crimson neckwear.
As the first theatre production of the Soulpepper 2017/2018 season, and kicking off the fall theatre season in general in Toronto, Waiting for Godot was at first glance an unusually straightforward, safe pick — a well-known but challenging title, with a respected director and two favourite performers. But after seeing Brooks, Matamoros, Dennis, Reid and McCooeye (not to mention young Richie Lawrence in two memorable appearances as Boy) take on the play, we’re reminded of how Beckett can be the voice we’re waiting to hear without even realizing it.
Diego Matamoros, Rick Roberts and Oliver Dennis in Soulpepper Theatre’s Waiting for Godot.