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Barry McGovern - Watt

Barry McGovern was twelve years old when he first discovered the world
of Samuel Beckett. The year was 1961, and McGovern was an Irish
schoolboy watching a BBC television production of Waiting For Godot,
Beckett's seminal piece of existentialist vaudeville which had
seemingly rewritten the rules for theatre when it premièred first in
Paris in 1953 in its original French-language production as En
Attendant Godot, then two years later in the young Peter Hall's
English-language première in London.

The TV production of Beckett's play about two tramps wiling away their
time on the roadside watched by McGovern starred Irish acting legend
Jack MacGowran as Vladimir, one of the two central roles. This
small-screen take on Godot was shown the same year an American
production, starring Burgess Meredith and Zero Mostel, was broadcast.
The twelve-year old McGovern would be as unaware of that version as he
was that some forty years later he too would appear on-screen in Godot
after making Beckett's work something of a lifetime's calling both on
stage and screen.

“I was captivated,” says McGovern, recalling his twelve year old self.
“I didn't know what it was about, but it just struck a chord with me.
Then I saw a production of Waiting For Godot at the Gate Theatre in
Dublin, and it did the same thing.”

As McGovern prepares to perform his solo version of Watt, Beckett's
second novel, published the same year as Godot appeared in France, but
written eight years earlier, its clear that Beckett has been striking a
chord ever since.

“Jack MacGowran had done a one-man show of Beckett's work called
Beginning To End,” McGovern explains. “It had been going for a long
time, and was made into a film. Then MacGowran died in 1973. I would
have loved to have done it.”

As it was, it wasn't until 1986that McGovern brought his own one-man
Beckett show to Edinburgh. I'll Go On was a remarkable rendering of
Beckett's trilogy of novels, Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnameable.
These novels were a free-wheeling feast of interior monologue and
disjointed musings by unreliable narrators who referenced many of
Beckett's earlier works, including Watt. The title of I'll Go On was
taken from the final words of The Unnameable.

Like Watt, I'll Go On was produced by The Gate, and presented at Dublin
Theatre Festival in 1985 prior to an Edinburgh run at the Assembly
Rooms the following year. McGovern condensed the trilogy's epic sprawl
into a manageable ninety minutes. If, that is, incanting none-stop for
that time in Beckett's inimitable use of language can be considered
manageable. While a good half-hour shorter, Watt is something else

“It was a big mountain to climb,” McGovern admits. “The Gate wanted
something for a shorter time slot, and I wasn't sure whether to do one
of Beckett's novellas. Watt seemed to me undoable, to be honest, but I
was persuaded to have a go. There were a lot of false starts, but it
was just a question of crafting it, and hanging on to its essence.”

Watt ostensibly tells the story of a Mr Watt and his journey to a Mr
Knott's house. Once there, he becomes the reclusive Mr Knott's
man-servant, and struggles to make sense of life, at one point becoming
all but inarticulate. It was written largely as an exercise, according
to Beckett, largely while on the run in France during the Second World
War. After the flamboyant felicities of his earlier novel, Murphy, and
the linked short stories in More Pricks Than Kicks, Watt was something
of a radical stylistic departure for Beckett.

“The challenge for us,” says director of Watt, Tom Creed, “was to stage
something that is plot-less and which has no drama. So you have to do
something that isn't really an adaptation of the book, but which is an
interpretation of it. Barry had drafts of a script, and we worked on
what the implications of that would be over an hour-long show. We
include sequences in the book, so it becomes a sort-of greatest hits,
but we ended up leaving it one entire quarter of the book.

This included a sequence of talking backwards, which, as even McGovern
concedes, is “impossible to do.”

Creed points out too that “the whole text is in third person prose,
which is different to when Barry did I'll Go On, which is in the first
person. So from the beginning we knew it wasn't going to be possible
for Barry to become a character in that way. He's more talking about
Watt. But what's really interesting for me is to is to work with one of
the best interpretors of Beckett in the world. You don't get to do that
sort of work with Barry very often.”

Creed's production of Watt was originally seen at the Gate in 2010 as
part of the theatre's BPM season of works by Beckett, Harold Pinter and
David Mamet. Watt later travelled to New York as one half of a double
bill with a production of Beckett's post-apocalyptic comedy, Endgame,
which also featured McGovern in the cast.

For all McGovern's associations with Beckett, he stresses that he's
just a freelance actor like any other. Given his choice of work,
however, it's clear that his sensibility leads him to kindred spirits.
McGovern has just come back from Los Angeles where he's been performing
in a new production of Waiting For Godot. As well as playing Vladimir,
Estragon and Lucky at various points onstage, in the ultimate echo of
MacGowran, McGovern appeared in the 2001 film of the play that formed
part of the Beckett on Film series of the playwright's collected drama.
Given that Beckett had written to MacGowran in 1967 saying that he
didn't want any film of Godot, which he considered not to be film
material, what he would have made of the exercise is anybody's guess.

As for McGovern, “I never thought I'd do it again,” he says of playing
Vladimir in the LA production. While Irish company the Gare St Lazare
Players have performed a three-hour solo version of The Beckett
Trilogy, it was McGovern who was called upon to record it for a CD box
set release to coincide with the centenary of Beckett's birth.

“I met a man in the street,” says McGovern, “who came up to me and told
me he'd listened to it all.”

After we've finished talking, McGovern is off to the Gate, where he's
performing in Glengarry Glen Ross, David Mamet's hard-boiled drama set
in the cut and thrust world of real estate. While Mamet's play's
setting is infinitely more concrete than those in much of Beckett's
works, as the Gate's BPM season implied, Glengarry Glen Ross and other
plays by the American writer probably couldn't exist without them.

After I'll Go On, and now Watt, then, might there be any other Beckett
prose works McGovern could bring to life onstage?

“Murphy is an early novel,” McGovern muses on Beckett's first published
novel. “It's got a considerable cast of characters, so I don't know how
you'd do it, but never say never.”

Watt, EIF, Royal Lyceum Theatre, August 11-14,

The Herald, August 13th 2012



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