Gate Theatre's Beckett adaptation largely fails to illuminate
This article is from 2012.
At the start of the Gate Theatre's stage presentation of Samuel Beckett's novel Watt, Barry McGovern, the sole performer, lopes onstage dressed in hat and coat and carrying bulging suitcases. He hangs the hat and coat on a man-sized stand, placing the cases either side, and then steps aside, so that the title character appears to be motionless onstage throughout. It's a curiously effective image of why the show doesn't work, because although Watt appears to be present, there's nobody inside.
McGovern's is an urbane, controlled and endearingly gloomy stage presence, never raising his voice above a mild growl and never moving faster than a loping stroll. This has served him well in the Gate's perennially revived Waiting for Godot and his celebrated one-man Beckett show I'll Go On, but Watt is a thornier problem. It's a notoriously 'transitional' work, written when Beckett was painfully shedding his early, aggressive smart-arsery and was groping towards his mature and perfectly pitched images of the struggle of weakness against hopelessness. Watt sees Beckett prowling anxiously around his central character, incapable of figuring out what keeps Watt going but unable to tear his attention away, and the book, although fascinating, is correspondingly a muddle, frantically discarding one perspective after another, jumbling up realism, daft comedy, obsessive combinatorial games and self-conscious metatextuality. The show smoothes out the bumps, aiming for the Gate's house style with classic Beckett – lugubrious tragicomedy – but the manic source material is belied by the presentation.
The text only takes fire halfway through, when McGovern suddenly launches into a comically grumpy cadenza of disgust with the whole cycle of birth, growth and death. But then it lapses into recitation, and the mystery of Watt's inertia, which Beckett himself had yet to figure out, is left un-illuminated.
Royal Lyceum Theatre, 473 2000, until 14 Aug, 8pm, £10-£30.