It's doubtful you will ever see a more perfectly realized production of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett's signature play "Waiting For Godot" than the one that's currently being presented by Galway's celebrated Druid theatre at the Lincoln Center's White Light Festival this week.
Beckett's signature play, 'Waiting For Godot" is widely considered the most important play in the English language of the 20th century.
But what that might not tell you is that it's often one of bleakly funniest too. "Nothing," he wrote once, "is funnier than unhappiness."
This week Galway's celebrated Druid theatre is in town with theirpitch-perfectt production of the classic play at the Lincoln Center White Light Festival.
In a word, it's flawless. It's so good you might be tempted to consider that you're seeing the play for the first time, in a production so ideal, so consistently note perfect that I think even the notoriously exacting Beckett himself would have given his approval.
Every visit of the Druid theatre to New York is an event, a highlight of the theatrical year, but this luminous production is certain to win the kind of critical raves that led to nominations during the award season for the company and its celebrated director Garry Hynes.
So why should you go? “That question is one for the audience to answer I think,” Hynes tells the Voice. “You see two guys waiting on the side of the road for somebody to come and they're not quite sure what that person's going to do, but the implicit assumption is that Godot is going to make life better for them in some way.
“So we watch as they try to get through the period of time they have to wait, arguing about whether they even should be waiting for him, then arguing about how and why they waited yesterday, and about the benefits of waiting for him or not.”
Godot is widely believed to be the greatest English (and French) language plat of the 20 century, but this production speaks so directly to our own time it can feel as though it had been written earlier this year.
“For me, the play is entirely Irish,” says Hynes. “It's a quintessentially Irish play. I don't hear it as anything except that, which is an Irish play.” For her it's a part of the repertoire alongside O'Casey, Friel and Murphy say.
There is something singular about hearing Godot presented in the Irish accents of his countrymen that helps convey the play's familiar gallows humor, it's pathos and inconsolable despair. In fact, at times it's as though it were a piece of music that Hynes is conducting as well as play she's directing.
At all events, the new production that is being presented by Druid at the Lincoln Center festival has the simplicity and the revelatory power of a vision and New York is being wowed by what on stage. Hynes Godot makes room for laughter and tears, for comedy and tragedy, for certainty and uncertainty and for the human need to connect in a universe that seems indifferent to every form of connection.
The White Light Festival's mission statement is to explore the power of art to shine a light on our internal and communal lives and given that, it's no wonder Druid's production is at the head of their performance list. Not a word is wasted, not a moment is lost onstage.
“The one thing we don't have control over is the future,” says Hynes. “We never know what will happen tomorrow and we are all at the mercy of the future and what it will bring. And that's what's going on here,” she says, referring to the play or America, or both. “The play just feels utterly of the moment,” she adds.
Presented in the capacious John Jay College theatre on 59th Street, the set is as lucid as the production, featuring a single tree and a rock, then barren wasteland as far as the eye can see. It's an image that is framed by an illuminated border, as though to contain what happens on stage, or to highlight it like a frame around a painting.
Often looking and sounding like an old, unhappily married couple, Marty Rea (Didi) and Aaron Monaghan (Gogo) carry the play alongside Garrett Lombard (Lucky), Rory Nolan (Pozzo) and Jaden Pace/Nathan Reid (Boy) giving us a masterclass in ensemble acting, where the play and not the actor is the thing.
Actor's showcase performances of Godot have come to Broadway and Off-Broadway in recent years, with showboating household names filling the Didi and Gogo roles. But Druid's Godot has eschewed that temptation in favor of a communal production that allows each moment to find its echo and for the classic play itself to emerge. Because of this, it represents a new pinnacle in the already long and storied production history of the famous play.
“The actors are all members of the Druid ensemble who have appeared in Druid Synge and Druid Shakespeare and Druid Murphy in New York,” says Hynes. “It's a company of people who truly are an ensemble. It's a collaboration beyond what you normally get.”
That's the truth. It's rare to witness a theatre company that gets to learn and then play to each others performance strengths so consistently, production after production, play cycle after cycle.
What emerges from that kind of intimacy and exploration is insight, nuance and timing. It's apparent from the opening moment. The benefits of that year on year level of physical and philosophical exploration yields riches in scene after scene. Monaghan is a superb physical actor, as is Rea, and their expressions often speak as plainly as the text in a bravura dual performance that leans heavily into one and other.
Godot is famously set in a barren and almost colorless landscape and it actually references one of the starkest landscapes of all, the exposed plane of Connemara, in which it could very easily be set (in fact Druid noted this and staged a perforce on the equally bleak but beautiful Inis Meain island, in the open air).
There's a gnarled, wind blown tree and a rock and an open road, and so it could be located half way between this world and eternity, the way that Irish landscapes often seem to be.
“Their situation could be any of our situations on any given day of our lives,” Hynes explains. In this particular historical moment, which looks backwards and seems to fear the future, it speaks to us so directly because the uncertainty and pain on stage is the uncertainty and pain in our daily lives now.
And what would Hynes want people thinking of coming to see this landmark production to know about it? “I wouldn't want them to know anything really. I would want them to come in and sit down and be in the moment with it. It's a play that has a huge, sometimes terrifying reputation. If I was to influence anyone's decision whether to go to it or not I would want them to go.”
"Waiting For Godot" plays through November 13 at the Lincoln Center White Light Festival. For tickets visit lincolncenter.org.