Silent Faces Theatre, at the Pleasance, Thursday 10th June, 2021.
I’ve been waiting for Godot is a Woman since March 2020. Two rescheduled bookings and I’m finally sitting in splendid isolation in the Pleasance, watching three actors (two of them women, one of them non-binary – identifies as non-binary? No, is. Is non-binary) waiting at a phone-box for a call from the Beckett Estate (probably they should have called Curtis Brown, Beckett’s agent. Maybe that was the problem?) giving the three of them permission to put on Waiting for Godot despite Not Being Men. And waiting. And waiting. It’s all very meta, and also a bit reductive. The three members of Silent Faces Theatre, Jack Wakely, Josie Underwood, and Cara Withers, like clowning a bit, do physical theatre a bit, riff on the slapstick elements in Godot a bit, but they’re all very imprecise, and very polite, and very restrained, and committed to sharing comforting cuddles, so not really channelling the Keaton/Chaplin vibe that Beckett was after. They eventually get to the core of their play, which is a spoof court scene, the members of Silent Faces up against the Beckett Estate in the High Court, the three actors switching between roles as judge, witness, prosecutor, medical expert. That bit was good fun, and they revelled in the shambolic changes, and roundly mocked Samuel Beckett’s contention that women couldn’t play Vladimir and Estragon because: “Women don’t have prostates.” As Jack Wakely, performer and writer, sagely observes, it is never stated that anyone has a prostate problem, and while it is assumed that Vladimir has to go offstage to wee, Jack also observes that women wee too. This is sort of presented as a knock-down drag-out argument for which Beckett and his minions have no come-back, although I’d be inclined to look at this bit:
“VLADIMIR: What do we do now? ESTRAGON: Wait.
VLADIMIR: Yes, but while waiting. ESTRAGON: What about hanging ourselves?
VLADIMIR: Hmm. It’d give us an erection!
ESTRAGON: [Highly excited.] An erection!
VLADIMIR: With all that follows. Where it falls mandrakes grow. That’s why they shriek when you pull them up. Did you not know that?
ESTRAGON: Let’s hang ourselves immediately!”
as evidence for the characters’ maleness. That seems fairly conclusive to me, and a bit naughty of Silent Faces to ignore it.
My problem with the arguments they put forward, which both diminished the significance of the parts Beckett wrote explicitly and exclusively for women, and ignored the specificity of Beckett’s dramatic vision, is that Waiting for Godot is much funnier than Godot is a Woman. I smiled a few times at the Pleasance, Barry McGovern’s Vladimir and Johnny Murphy’s Estragon at the Barbican in 1999 made me laugh out loud. It’s how you play it.
I don’t really care if women are cast in the male roles. I don’t really care if Vladimir and Estragon are played as men by non-male actors, or if they aren’t played as male at all. I just want them to be played well. I had no interests in seeing a hammed-up reading by McKellen and Stewart, I would bite your arm off to get a ticket for Godot played by Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams, and my fantasy cast would be Groucho and Chico as Estragon and Vladimir, with Harpo and Margaret Dumont as Lucky and Pozzo. Clowning is fine, non-gendered clowning is fine, sloppy clowning should be banned for ever by the Beckett Estate, just because…