Saturday, 16 May 2009

Waiting for Godot: absurdity and naturalism

The mouth-watering combination of Sir Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart has made the production of Waiting for Godot currently playing at the Theatre Royal into London's hottest theatrical ticket.

Watching the play last week, it dawned on me how quickly we begin to take things for granted once they've been officially designated a classic and analysed to the nth degree.

While the production strives to make the play as accessible as possible, highlighting the music hall comedy flavour of the central double act, it doesn't take too much of an imaginative leap to imagine how utterly alien Beckett's drama must have seemed when it first appeared in 1953.

Thinking about Beckett and his Theatre of the Absurd mates, it dawned on me how we've never really managed - or maybe even wanted - to get away from naturalism as the default mode for our various forms of drama in this country.

Maybe the old Puritan distrust of fiction is still lurking in our cultural DNA. In the early days of the English novel (c1720-1750), writers had to fly in under ye olde radare by disguising their work as true life stories (Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders) or exchanges of letters (Pamela, Clarissa).

In terms of screenwriting, the social realism of the British New Wave, exemplified in 'kitchen sink dramas' like Room at the Top (1959), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), A Taste of Honey (1961) and A Kind of Loving (1962), fed through to Coronation Street and, later, EastEnders - the most-watched shows on TV.

As screenwriters, we have the advantage of being able to create meaning by stepping beyond the dramatic unities and manipulating time and location: for example, Charlie Kaufman's audacious use of time in Synecdoche, New York creates a terrifying impression of the brevity of life.

Similarly, Eisenstein and his mates were big on creating meaning through montage - the juxtaposition of shots to create associations, or symbolic meanings, that are greater than the sum of their parts. Actually, I find that a key part of screenwriting, so maybe I'll try and do a quick survey of their theories for a future post.

After being energised by Beckett and Pinter when I discovered them as a teenager, I later went off them slightly. After seeing one too many productions of The Birthday Party, it seemed to me that they were full of showy theatrical dialogue and gestures that looked and sounded impressive but didn't really say much to me about my life.

However, seeing Waiting for Godot again has revitalised my enthusiasm for the experimental. While not everything we write has to veer off into the wildly experimental or esoteric, it's never a bad idea to cross-pollenate your experience with stuff that works in a slightly different mode to what you're normally comfortable with.

Just don't expect everyone in Albert Square to turn into a rhinoceros any time soon.

(PS. Blimey, this blog's going a bit David Bordwell, innit?)

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