Waiting for Godot – Tobacco Factory, Bristol

On the top floor – The Tobacco Factory Theatre, North St Bristol

What a treat – one of my favourite plays in my favourite theatre. The Tobacco Factory is a great venue – small and intimate, with a strong local company that regularly chooses interesting plays which would rarely be performed in larger, more commercial venues, plays which educate and entertain.

Every city should have a theatre brave enough, and with enough financial support, to introduce the next generation to plays like this – that challenge the intellect and stir the emotions, that make the audience laugh out loud, but recognise the frailty of life.

Waiting for Godot is a modern classic, and you could argue that it epitomises the C20 in its rootlessness, and value neutral world.

It is in fact a theatrical embodiment of the philosophy of existentialism. Vladimir and Estragon stand and wait, but nothing happens. They live in a desolate and empty environment – in la boue (the mud) of existential philosophy – the state of nausea and anxious being that precedes realisation and the actualisation of the self. They do not know who they are. And they will never find out, because only action defines the self. You are never anything till you do something, and they never do.

In this interpretation of the play Lucky is a further example of what happens if you fail to act. If you don’t make choices, they are made for you. Lucky is constrained by Pozzo in the way that we are constrained by our humdrum and meaningless lives. He will not break free of his chains and claim his authentic self. Instead he chooses slavery and bondage. When Pozzo and Lucky return in Act 2 the fruitlessness and foolishness of this choice is shown. Pozzo is blind. They are going nowhere.

It’s ironic of course that existentialism was originally a Christian philosophy. The general tenor of Kierkegaard’s approach was that I can only know I am a Christian if I act like one. It’s actually what the Bible says. In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands. 1 John 5.3

Waiting for Godot can be seen as a condemnation of religion and especially Christianity. But it’s approach to religion is very shallow. It offers a neat summary of why religion is foolish – after all nothing happens! Godot never comes, there is no easy answer. It’s a kind of Govian soundbite, easy to understand, but not likely to survive a lifetime’s scrutiny. You can’t dismiss Christianity on basis of a witty metaphor and a couple of hours on the stage.

Of course the interlude with Lucky and Pozzo also introduces that other great c20 philosophy – Marxism. The ideas stretch even further back, to Rousseau – man is born free but everywhere he is in chains.

The great thing about Waiting for Godot is the elusiveness of its allusions. That is what accounts for its durability and the endless fascination it provides for the audience. It’s a metaphor for life that means something new every time you see it.

This time for me I could see Rees-Mogg in the figure of Pozzo, and the British public as Lucky. They know he will only keep them in chains: that is the job of the ruling classes, of which he is one. But they keep on coming back for more. They tie themselves to him.

This was a good production of the play. The audience laughed out loud frequently, and the lines were delivered with aplomb. Lucky was brilliant – a panting, exhausted, beaten lackey who wouldn’t put down his bags and was willingly at his master’s beck and call.

There was an Irish Vladimir and a northern Estragon – or was it the other way round? I never know which is which!! That brought a kind of vitality to their characters. I wasn’t sure if the Northern one was meant to be Compo from Last of the Summer Wine, but he had drawn a lot from that character, which was ok, but didn’t really add to the play. They were funny and at times tender, though that aspect was perhaps a little muted.

The setting was typical of the sparseness of most productions. There were bits of industrial rubbish around, and a tree made of metal. The pile of bricks two courses high may or may not have been a reference to Carl André’s bricks in the Tate gallery in the 1970s, and the controversy they created about what counts as art. Waiting for Godot certainly does.

The theatre was not quite full, which is a shame. The Tobacco Factory should be supported more. We can’t afford to lose it.

But there was a strong evidence of life. There were two audience members dressed as Lucky, and the whole audience had a young and to some extent beatnik aspect. There were some old fogies like me, but unusually we were in the minority. The Tobacco factory has brought Beckett to life for the next generation. Like Socrates, they are interrogating the world. All power to their elbow.


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