Godot's gone to the gents


When English schoolboy Harry Mitchell tried to stage Beckett’s most famous play in a public toilet during the Edinburgh Fringe, the author’s estate pulled the plug; now, a rewritten version, about an audience waiting for a play that never starts, pokes fun at the furore

‘A LAVATORY is not a proper set”. With these words the estate of Samuel Beckett broke the heart of a 17-year-old English schoolboy and left him over €1,100 in debt. Now he wants his revenge.

Last year, Harry Mitchell put on a production of Beckett’s Waiting For Godotat his secondary school, City Of London. He decided to use the school’s toilets as the location, reasoning “that’s where teenage schoolboys do most of their waiting”. He only put on the first act of the play as he didn’t want his classmates standing for over two hours.

“Obviously I had to get permission from the Beckett estate to stage the play in the school,” says Mitchell. “I had heard that the estate was notorious for shutting down some plays so I kind of kept it on the quiet side that it was going to be set in a toilet. We got permission but it was strictly only to be seen by my classmates and the teachers in the school. No parents were allowed to come”.

Mitchell was astonished by the reaction to his production. “All these boys who had no interest in the theatre whatsoever were really impressed by it and how it was done. The reaction from everyone was just unbelievable. I think what really helped was that because it was such a small place, the actors were really in the audience’s face – it was all very intense and people were really getting into it.”

Buoyed by the response, Mitchell decided to bring the show to this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The Fringe society found him a working public lavatory in the city that could be used from 6pm each day onwards. The Beckett estate initially gave their approval and Mitchell spent a lot of money in organising the run.

When The Fringe programme was released in June, his show began to attract a bit of media interest and Mitchell believes that this prompted the decision by the estate to revoke their permission. The letter Mitchell received pointed out that the setting of a public toilet would compromise costume, set and stage directions and as such would be “vehemently” opposed to the author’s wishes – especially since the production would be at such a high-profile arts festival.

“I thought it was horrible of them,” says Mitchell. “They are acting like they are the enemy of art or something. It’s not as if I was trying to undermine the play in some way – I’m a huge Beckett fan – but I honestly believe Beckett himself would have gone for our choice of location. It’s an absurd location and because of the confined space it really adds to the pressure of the plot.”

Mitchell was so upset by the estate’s decision – and had already invested a lot of time and money in bringing the production up to the Fringe – that he decided to write a new play mocking the Beckett estate and perform that in the public toilet instead.

“Initially I wanted to call it Waiting for Waiting For Godotbut I found out that that had already been used by someone else so I am calling the play Still Waiting For Godot,” he says.

“The two main characters are now two seasoned theatre critics who come to our toilet to review our Beckett production but they find that it has been cancelled by the Beckett estate.” (The “Lucky” character now becomes a schoolboy).

“It’s going to be homage to the original play but also a way to get back at the estate. We haven’t had much rehearsal time so we’re just hoping it all comes right. The idea behind the plot of the new play is to get some sort of debate going about artistic reinterpretation. I just think Waiting For Godotis such a great play, that you should be allowed to build on it a bit and get more people in to see it.

MITCHELL HAS JUST been to see the current UK production of Godotwith Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in the leading roles. “It’s great but it’s the exact same play as was first premiered all those years ago. I just can’t see why new things, such as location, can’t be brought to it.”

Coincidentally, Mitchell’s Fringe play will be using the same public toilets that were used by the Irish theatre group, Semper Fi, when they brought their Ladies and Gentsplay to The Fringe a few years ago.

“I actually got in touch with them when I heard that,” says Mitchell. “They were able to give me some really good advice about how to stage a play in a public toilet.

“I really wish the Beckett estate could have seen how fantastic Waiting For Godotin a toilet can be before they decided to take their permission away.”

Still Waiting For Godotby the Nod/Nod theatre group can be seen at the St James Public Toilets, Edinburgh from Aug 25-31