Theatre

Barry McGovern’s one-man adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s novel Watt is a masterpiece of poignant, pratfalling absurdity

By Peter Craven.

Barry McGovern’s Watt

Barry McGovern in ‘Watt’
Credit: Pia Johnson

There is something marvellous about Barry McGovern in his adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s novel Watt. The Irish actor is a superb interpreter of the work of one of the very greatest 20th-century playwrights, as anyone will know who saw him play Vladimir in Waiting for Godot or Clov in Endgame when the Dublin Gate, the legendary theatre company of Micheál Mac Liammóir, came to the Melbourne Festival in 1997. (The Godot is the go-to one because it’s the version of the play in the Raidió Teilifís Éireann boxed set of Beckett’s dramatic works.)

You go to Watt knowing it will be good (great actor, great writer and all that), but perhaps also with that touch of bemusement about famous and virtuoso actors doing one-handers in what may be perceived – God knows often with reason enough – as the cultural colonies. And yet this one in particular hits you like a bit of a miracle. This is the voice of Beckett – early, acrobatic, too clever by half, blarney-stone and blathering Beckett you may say, but performed with supreme music and beauty, with great comedy and poignancy, absolutely un-showy but with a kind of impassioned wisdom that seems to contain, as if in a jewel box, all the tears and laughter in the world. McGovern’s Watt is a dramatic masterpiece. Acting does not get better than this, theatre does not get better than this, and the bridge between literature and drama is also negotiated with one effortless riotously comic step.

Watt’s steps are epics of awkwardness and McGovern does them with a perfect slapstick grandeur and this becomes them like a storm that was once visible in the firmament and then just hangs around like a familiar confusion of the universe.

Northrop Frye, that great Canadian critic and classifier of literature, said all the great English dramatists between Ben Jonson and Pinter were Irish and he’s right: Congreve, Sheridan, Wilde, Shaw. You may argue whether the drama of the 20th century – which must be dated after the deaths of Chekhov and Ibsen – has the odd American who might hold a candle to Beckett. But anyone English? Well, Pinter perhaps, Caryl Churchill maybe.

McGovern’s program note reminds us that Pinter read Watt when he was touring Ireland with the Shakespearean troupe of Anew McMaster and it’s not hard to see how the absurdism of Watt – written in English while Beckett was working for the French Resistance against the Nazis – could have stirred something in the great English dramatist.

It’s funny that it was Beckett, Joyce’s intimate and assistant, who said of the Irish punching above their weight in literary matters that it was due to the English: “They have buggered us…” – it’s stronger, one imagines, in the French in which he said it – “…into glory.”

And, of course, Beckett fled English and the Irish glories thereof, because they were too seductive – hence the haunted, spectral formality, the animated phrasebook speech of Godot and Endgame, where the colour of eloquence is bled back to a twilit suggestion of denotation, a recognisable definition, not a surrender.

“I say to myself that the earth is extinguished, though I never saw it lit,” Clov says in Endgame, in his Fool’s voice, muting but disclosing all the tragicomedy of this King Lear on the skids.

Is Watt Chaplinesque buffoonery on stilts? Almost, but triumphantly. It’s easy to forget how utterly rare it is, the quality Beckett shares with Chekhov and hardly anybody else, of being a great writer of fiction who was also a great dramatist. And Watt, even if it’s scarcely a novel, is a beautiful piece of fiction. It’s remarkable how much McGovern’s performance brings back, like the vivid recollection of a dream dreamt a lifetime ago, this enthralling comic nightmare of a book.

A man who walks like a catastrophe. Who, afflicted with comical horrors, falls in ditches. Who works for Mr Knott (who else in a world where every attempted “yes” meets its negation?), who stares at piano tuners, who is almost, not quite, friendly in his feelings towards a workman. Who sits on a woman’s lap, then she sits on his and it’s all reversed and kisses are exchanged and movements made. Paraphrase does no justice but McGovern’s version of Watt brings out everything that is succulent and sad and indelibly dramatic about this preposterous and vertiginous story, which is dead funny even if the idea of re-reading it has always seemed a bridge too far.

His script captures with great masterliness every joke, every jape, every catch in the throat, every breath, every gurgle of what makes Watt such a beautiful piece of writing and also a portentous calling card on the part of Beckett’s dramatic imagination.

Part of the trick with Beckett, which he makes look easy, is that he has a high tragedian’s sense of form but he comes at it through the antics of the clown. And in Watt, with its high-burblingly moody sense of comedy, the universe is contained in the tragicomic equanimity with which a hero – who is certainly not a hero – views the all but absolute limitations of every damn thing.

The greatest of his critical interpreters, another Canadian, Hugh Kenner, said Beckett was a stoic comedian and he defined a stoic as someone who thinks the possibilities are great perhaps, or small perhaps, but essentially limited. He also thought Beckett represented the ultimate dead end of Descartes’ cogito ergo sum, as well as the greatest master of the sentence as an articulate unit in 20th-century English.

McGovern understands – with a wonderful sense of tact – that Watt represents this mastery with a wild lunatic Shakespearean eloquence, and one of the glorious things about his performance is that he captures every last one of the thousand pratfalls of Watt, falling down stair after painful stair while not for a second, or hardly ever, milking them. One of the mysteries of this truly great performance is its restraint in the face of material that is spectacularly exuberant and gymnastic.

And so we get this weird jokey masterpiece by a young man in love with the supremacy of language and aghast at the disappointments of the world presented through the eyes of an older man who understands the limits of everything including the enumeration of the particularities of nothingness.

McGovern looks a bit like that great Australian fiction maker Gerald Murnane and he plays Watt – and also stands back from Watt – with a sort of clairvoyant quality that amazes the faculties of eyes and ears.

In Tom Creed’s beautifully minimalist production, with subtly modulated lighting from Sinéad McKenna, McGovern seems to play Watt, this blundering embodiment of the ungainliness of the world, but also Beckett, the dramatic creator who has brought him into being, and this is done with a skill that defies the perception. You’re remotely aware of it happening but you can’t see how it’s done.

This is a performance of absolute pensive authority. It captures with an effortless conviction the man who clowns and suffers and the voice that comprehends and encompasses all the jokes and stabs of the heart that run beneath everything. It is an extraordinary feat analogous to the seamless transitions in Flaubert, or Joyce long before Beckett, between point-of-view writing and straight third-person narration. It is an exceptionally subtle effect and McGovern does it like such a master that he makes this shuffling witty bit of existential comedy performed by an old Irish pro, late of the Abbey and the Gate, into a kind of revelation. It’s as if, in his hands, character acting were turned into a language as intimate and remote, as empty of anything to write home about, as the voice of God.

McGovern’s performance is so quiet, so genial, so effortless. Try to catch it if you possibly can. It’s easy to say that Beckett was one of the very greatest dramatists of the existentialist moment because he realised that existentialism was a joke (a joke that was also no joke). But what McGovern captures in Watt is a thing of magic, a quality dimly analogous to that luminous, fearless look we get in photos of Beckett and which is there like an implication and an undercurrent in every word he wrote.

 

Arts Diary

VISUAL ARTS Masters of Modern Art from the Hermitage

Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, until March 3

CULTURE The Unconformity

Venues throughout Queenstown, Tasmania, October 19-21

MULTIMEDIA Flight

Arts Centre, Melbourne, until October 21

VISUAL ART I hope you get this: Raquel Ormella

Horsham Regional Art Gallery, Victoria, until December 9

JEWELLERY Culture Juice – Beyond Bling

Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, until January 14

MULTIMEDIA Liveworks 2018

Performance Space, Sydney, October 18-28

VISUAL ART Polly Borland: Polyverse

NGV Australia, Melbourne, until February 3

CLASSICAL Thibaudet plays the Egyptian Concerto with Sibelius Two

Sydney Opera House, October 17-20

Last chance

CULTURE Fire Gardens

Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne, until October 13

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 13, 2018 as "Watt is the what". Subscribe here.

Peter Craven
is a literary and culture critic.