A country road. A tree. Evening. It seems like no place worth stopping, but exhaustion has set in. Unfortunately, Waiting for Godot offers little in the way of respite for the play's main figures as they consider their existence. Samuel Beckett's classic work remains a towering example of 20th century theater, even though — or largely due to the fact — that the play raises more questions than it answers. In many ways, the story of a mystery that goes unsolved featuring detectives who don't detect, Waiting for Godot merely provides a glimpse of the desperate souls who litter the roadside, waiting on someone who never arrives and arriving at a solution to do nothing but wait some more.
It was around three years ago that director Garry Hynes was approached by four cast members from Druid Theatre who proposed establishing their own production of Waiting for Godot. According to Hynes, tackling Beckett's work made complete sense for the performers, but she was unsure the world wanted or, more importantly needed, another production of Waiting for Godot. But after that initial hesitance, Hynes arrived at the decision to move ahead with what has become one of the most acclaimed iterations of the modern classic in recent history.
So how were Hynes and company able to provide a fresh take on a piece of art with which theater-goers are already so familiar? The solution, as deceptively simple as the play itself, was to remain true to the work and the characters who inhabit the play.
"Beckett himself and the Beckett estate were notoriously insistent that not only there be utter fidelity to Beckett's script, but that there also be utter fidelity to Beckett's stage directions. Quite simply, until Beckett is more than 70 years dead, that will continue to be the case. So it was really a matter of actually trying to understand and own for yourself as a director and actors, why those things are there," says Hynes. "You can't, for instance, do it with women, which many people have wanted to do. You can't reinvent it by having everybody in, say, motorcycle suits or something like that. It was really about actually being utterly faithful to Beckett's directions but having a kind of sense of who these four men and boy are, so that they function as people rather than symbols or ciphers. That was the challenge."
In approaching Waiting for Godot from a more personal, human perspective, Hynes says she has always been struck by terror when considering the story of these men — their bodies broken and their spirits extinguished in a seeming wasteland. As night falls, they are faced with the challenge of finding a place to sleep while not abandoning the post that they've inexplicably chosen to guard. But in spite of little promise that their efforts will not be in vain, the two main characters choose to persist — leaning on one another because in all honesty, they have nothing else.
"Gogo [Estragon] says perhaps we should split up and perhaps we would be better each on our own. But they don't and they haven't. It feels to me almost like a marriage," says Hynes of the play's main characters. "When you see them do certain things, and Beckett has written all of this — for instance when Gogo falls asleep, Vladimir puts his coat around his shoulders and takes care of him. That's like what a man and wife would do or a mother would do for a child. There is a very real relationship."
It's recognizing this heart at the center of Waiting for Godot that not only adds vibrancy to the production, but also draws the audience into the performance. These two weary men and the situation in which they find themselves are no longer distant and opaque. They are two people trapped in a story that is all too human.
"They bicker and disagree with each other and do all those kinds of things. So they feel like real people to me," says Hynes. "People have always asked, 'What does it mean?' I think that's the wrong question. I don't think it means anything. It's just two people waiting on the side of the road for somebody to come. Knowing that they probably waited for that man to come yesterday in possibly the same place, and knowing that they will probably have to wait for him again tomorrow. And again he may not come. It's a simple situation, but a hugely complex one."
She adds, "They're not sure if their waiting has purpose or if the person they are waiting for will ever come. That seems to me very much like life."