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TV Review: PBS's 'Godot' retains dark human comedy

Wednesday, January 01, 2003

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Critic

New Year's is a dual celebration. First, we usher out the old year with wild festivity, then we welcome the new with resolutions of self-improvement. It's a time to cleanse.

"Waiting for Godot"

WHEN: 9:30 tonight, WQED.

A boxed four-DVD set of the 19 Beckett plays is available from Ambrose Video for $149.95 (1-800-336-1917); you can get it for $120 via www.beckettonfilm.com.


In this spirit, PBS shows unusual acumen in choosing Jan. 1 to broadcast the sparest, most cleansing play of the 20th century -- Samuel Beckett's minimalist masterpiece, "Waiting for Godot."

This also happens to be the 50th anniversary of "Godot's" premiere, which took place Jan. 5, 1953, in Paris. In the allusive language of Beckett's subsequent English version, a tradition of vaudeville clowning turns to the service of a bleak, funny parable of mankind caught in a senseless vale of tears but persevering, nonetheless.

Tonight's performance is part of "Beckett on Film," movies of all 19 Beckett plays (but not of his several TV or radio plays), produced in Ireland in 1999-2000, using an all-star lineup of directors and such actors as John Gielgud, Julianne Moore and Alan Rickman. It comes courtesy of "Stage on Screen," which broadcast seven of the short films on Sept. 15 (Sept. 20 on WQED).

Directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, tonight's "Godot" stars Barry McGovern and Johnny Murphy as Vladimir and Estragon, the tramps adrift in an ash-and-rock-strewn landscape. Alan Stafford plays Pozzo, the buffoonish autocrat; Stephen Brennan is Lucky, the browbeaten servant with the astonishing monologue; and Sam McGovern plays the Boy (or two boys, it may be).

Beckett's text and setting are rendered as written, except that the transition to the screen, with camera angles dictating what we see, inevitably alters a purposefully theatrical document. McGovern and Murphy are perfectly matched -- one angular and aslant, the other sweetfaced in befuddlement.

Irish accents reveal the play's Irishness. Here, it's "God-o," accent on the first syllable, turning something mysterious into a familiar diminutive. Only Pozzo speaks with the English accent of the ruling class. Obviously this gains "Godot" a sociology, even a history. Many lines gain a new precision.

And yet the play/film retains its philosophic breadth on the dark human comedy of giving birth "astride the grave." This is a "Godot" to record and savor at your leisure.

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