Video Vault: Waiting for Godot

Reviews of the best (and worst) classic flicks and cult movies
Waiting for Godot

RTE, Channel 4, Blue Angel Films and the Irish Film Board, 2001

Starring: Barry McGovern, Johnny Murphy, Alan Stanford, Stephen Brennan, and Sam McGovern

Directed by: Michael Lindsay-Hogg

The plot: On a desolate patch of road, two men, Vladimir (Barry McGovern) and Estragon (Murphy), wait in silence. “Didi” and “Gogo” are life-long friends and world-travelers, but now they resemble stock hobos — battered bowler hats, torn and threadbare clothes, shoes with holes in them. They have arrived at this practically post-apocalyptic spot to meet a Mr. Godot, on whom they are betting their lives and future. Just what it is Godot has promised they don’t know. Nor are they sure of the day, the hour, or whether this is even the right place. They trade stories and even consider hanging themselves simply to pass the time. Pozzo (Stanford), an ebullient man of apparent means and breeding, arrives with his servant, Lucky (Brennan). At the end of Act I, a boy (Sam McGovern) arrives to report that Godot will not be coming, but will show up the next day. Act II finds Didi and Gogo continuing to wait and desperately trying to occupy their time. Pozzo and Lucky return, but Pozzo is now helplessly blind, despondent, and insists he has never before met Didi and Gogo. He and Lucky leave once more, and once more the boy arrives with the same message.

Why it’s good: When Michael Colgan, the artistic director of the Gate Theatre in Dublin, announced plans to film all 19 of Samuel Beckett’s plays, the project was met with skepticism. But the results were stellar and award-winning. Assembling the finest actors and directors available, all 19 pieces were intelligently and gloriously adapted for the screen. None were in any way insufficient, but the best effort seemed to be saved for Beckett’s most famous achievement. McGovern and Murphy honed their performances on the stage, then transferred the results of the thousands of hours of practice in front of the camera. These two are the Everyman, impossible, enraging, sympathetic, and lovable. All the actors use voices, deliveries, eyes, expressions and bodies to maximum effect during every second of screen time. Director Michael Lindsay-Hogg (“Let It Be”) uses the camera with imagination and intelligent restraint, emphasizing both the comedy and pathos. It’s impossible to imagine a stage production that could come close to capturing the fleeting magic and nuance of this brilliant film.

The legacy: Very few works of art can claim to be truly revolutionary, but “Waiting for Godot” is indisputably one. Written and premiered in Paris in 1953 by Irish expatriate Beckett, it took the world by storm, delighting, confusing, and enraging audiences and critics. In a relatively short period, it was recognized as a masterpiece and a storm of appreciation for Beckett’s body of work followed, culminating in his 1969 Nobel. Because “Godot” is bare bones, existentialist, and absurdist, it invites every kind of interpretation — philosophical, psychological, theological (“Is Godot God?”), political, even sexual, and a tidal wave of theses and treatises have been written on the meaning of it all. Beckett wasn’t telling, and prisoners doing hard time seem to understand it the best. The five-disc “Beckett on Film” box set is a pricey treasure, with a booklet, interviews, and a 52-minute documentary; Netflix offers each disc individually.