There’s a picture on Garry Hynes’ wall in the office of Druid Theatre, the Galway-based theatre company she co-founded with actors Marie Mullen and Mick Lally in the mid-1970s as Galway’s first professional theatre company. The picture is of Hynes’ 1982 production of Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett’s seminal 1953 play, which over the last half century has become a revered institution that has acquired a mainstream status rare for something that is a key text of the post Second World War avant-garde.
In 2016, Hynes returned to Waiting for Godot after thirty-five years for a production that has been praised both in Galway and abroad, and which this August will be seen at Edinburgh International Festival. With high-profile productions of Beckett’s play having been at something of a premium over the last few years, taking a fresh look at the play wasn’t initially on Haynes’ radar.
“It wasn’t my idea,” she happily admits. “It was the idea of four actors from the Druid ensemble, who said they’d like to do a production of Waiting for Godot. My response was that I could understand why they might want to do it, but that I didn’t think the world needed another production of Waiting for Godot.”
At the time, Hynes was focused on her production of DruidShakespeare, writer Mark O’Rowe’s epic condensing of four of the bard’s history plays, Richard II, Henry IV (Parts 1 and 2) and Henry V. As the run of the show started drawing to a close, however, in her own words, “something shifted. I still wasn’t sure why another production of Waiting for Godot was needed, but the actors had put the idea into my head, and I just thought, let’s do it.”
Originally written in French and famously described in a review of its first English language production as a play where ‘nothing happens twice’, Waiting for Godot focuses on two men, Vladimir and Estragon, who are waiting at the side of the road for the unseen deity of the play’s title. As the two men pass the time sparring like a music hall double act, only the appearance of two other men, Pozzo and Lucky, distract them.
With influences ranging from Laurel and Hardy to the wave of absurdism it came to define, Waiting for Godot has at times been weighed down with a set of overly academic interpretations. However valid, such baggage can sometimes get in the way of the play’s sense of hangdog existentialist slapstick.
Even if Beckett and his estate that now looks after his plays weren’t so strict regarding how his plays are presented, the verbal and physical precision of Waiting for Godot reveals the play as a set of routines that it is impossible to do anything other than simply deal with what is already there.
“I’ve always been influenced by Beckett’s vision, and this landscape of the mind he created,” says Hynes. “Despite the fact that he wrote in French, I was very aware of how much he’d been influenced by Synge, who is the playwright I loved the most, but doing Waiting for Godot still required a leap of faith on my part. I had to be persuaded to take a chance, not on Beckett or the play, but on myself.”
For this production, Hynes looked to a copy of Beckett’s original prompt script.
“The thing is,” she says, “you don’t have a choice. You really have to follow Beckett, and we decided we would go through every single stage direction. It was like putting a jigsaw puzzle together when you haven’t got the picture on the box. That was quite a liberating process, and it stopped me doing what directors do, which is to constantly keep on asking what something means.”
Watching the play was something of a revelation for Hynes.
“Looking at the picture on my wall of the 1982 production, it looks surprisingly like this one,” she says. “I also made the startling discovery that Waiting for Godot was a play about two blokes waiting at the side of the road for someone who never comes.”
Druid previously appeared at EIF in 2005 with DruidSynge, the Herald Angel winning compendium of the Irish writer’s collected works, which also saw Marie Mullen receive an Angel. Druid have also appeared at the Traverse Theatre for Edinburgh Festival Fringe with productions of Enda Walsh’s plays, Penelope and The Walworth Farce, both directed by Mikel Murphy, and The New Electric Ballroom, directed by Walsh himself.
Returning to Waiting for Godot after so many years working with other writers has seen Hynes reassess the play, even if it has ended up the same.
“I can only say I connected with it eventually,” she says, “and maybe that’s something to do with finding sympathy or empathy with these two men at the side of the road. I know there’s no plot, but things do happen, particularly in the extraordinarily bizarre scenes with Pozzo and Lucky.
“What I feel most about the play is astounded at the plight of this pair, Vladimir and Estragon, who are at the mercy of a wheel of fate they think they can control, but they can’t, and yet they still wait, and they still depend on one another. To quote from a friend of ours, that you and I are living in Time at the same time is extraordinary.”
The friend Hynes is quoting is Tom Murphy, the Galway-born playwright who in 1983 became Druid’s writer in residence, and whose work, like Synge, became totemic to the company. In 2012, DruidMurphy saw Hynes direct three of Murphy’s plays, Conversations on a Homecoming, A Whistle in the Dark and Famine, back to back. Murphy died aged 83 earlier this year.
“The world’s a sadder place for his loss,” says Hynes. She evokes the spirit of Beckett and applies this to Murphy. “We go on,” she says. “Somehow, we go on.”
Could Hynes ever see herself producing a DruidBeckett marathon to go alongside Synge, Shakespare and Murphy?
“I somehow don’t think so,” she says. “I’m not sure I would have the courage to live in that world for so long. That’s a completely personal response, but I’m not sure I could ask another director, or indeed the audience, to spend so long in that world.”
Waiting for Godot, Royal Lyceum Theatre, August 3-12 (not August 7), 7.30pm, August 5 and 11, 2.30pm.
The Herald, July 31st 2018