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Enda Gormley reviews Tom Creed’s affecting revival of Barry McGovern’s adaptation of Beckett’s novel ‘Watt’, at the Everyman

During the latter half of World War II, Samuel Beckett found himself in a town called Roussillon d’Apt hiding from Gestapo officers. He and his partner’s involvement with the Resistance movement had led to their exile from Paris and refuge in the Southern French town to await the end of the war. It was here Beckett finished the novel ‘Watt’. He found solace in the process of writing it and once credited the work as “a means of staying sane” during this difficult time in Vichy France which was neither at war nor at peace. 

Adapting the novel to the stage must have come with a feeling of obligation to stay faithful to its opaqueness, its sense of emptiness but also its hope. Director Tom Creed’s revival of Barry McGovern’s adaptation brings with it the weight and beauty of Beckett’s language and adds only what it must. The production attains a delicate equilibrium by bringing Beckett to life in an accessible manner without significant loss of generality. In fact there is a sense of timelessness which the production invokes by use of costume design and paring down of some of the more arcane language. It expertly bridges the gap between prose and theatre.

Early on, the play introduces us to Mr Watt, a man at odds, and often perplexed by the world and its inhabitants around him. He arrives at a country house in which he is due to be employed as a servant. Finding the front door locked and a state of darkness he then attempts to gain entry via the backdoor, only to find that it too is locked. Unphased he tries the front door again to no avail before trying the back door for a second time; finding that it is unlocked or “on the latch” he enters the house a little confused. The production launches from this moment, showing us the world through Mr Watt’s eyes where a dichotomous view is never sufficient. Mr Watt serves Mr Knott, the owner of the house who lives on the top floor. Mr Watt serves Mr Knott without ever actually meeting him. During his time as servant of the house Mr Watt encounters other characters who come to also serve Mr Knott. Samuel Beckett once said: “I have never accepted the notion of a theatre of the absurd, a concept that implies a judgement of value. It’s not even possible to talk about truth. That’s part of the anguish’. This production respectfully accords by never staking too much on any line and by allowing uncertainty to reign.

Barry McGovern massages the air of the auditorium in the Everyman Palace as he guides us through the madcap world set out by Beckett. He allows the language to make the impact adding ornamentation tactfully. His delivery is suitably vaudevillian in parts and candid when needed. There is comedy in the language and McGovern brings it bursting to life with his natural wit. In voicing the narrator he appeals to the intellect of the audience creating a recipe of thought with what could have been a wall of sound. During brief sojourns embodying characters he is emotional and deeply engaging. The novel doubles back and repeats itself so much that it could easily be a disaster on stage but with McGovern you feel you’re in safe hands.

The audience is guided through the selected parts of the novel which combine to present a cohesive message all while delivering the main body of novel efficiently under the hour mark. 

But of course some compromises had to be made by bringing this rambling book to the stage. You can feel the hand of the modern producer intervening on Beckett. The gluing together of disjoint pieces to make a play breaks the rhythm of the prose at times. This can be slightly jarring when McGovern is in full flow. There are also interruptions to the stream of consciousness before it reaches its logical climax. This, however, works to foster further uncertainty. But overall the piece is well suited to the stage which offers a blank canvas for the novel to be freshly retold each night in all its vagueness.

The set and lighting design complements the production. The stage is sparsely decorated with a  chair and a hand-truck. It is suitably minimalist and allows for just two acting positions-sitting and standing (McGovern opts not to lie on the ground). The lighting provides a wide range of moods and scenes. It is nuanced and offers surprises in its variation.

Overall this is a greatly affecting and altogether enjoyable production. Although the subject matter is dense, the pace is brisk and the overarching message is life-affirming. This ensures we do not dwell on what is lacking. It is teeming with the hope that Beckett associates with “perhaps”.