An attempt to stage Waiting for Godot in the Netherlands took on a Beckettian turn when the venue cancelled the performances because the Irish director had auditioned only men for the all-male cast of characters.
“I would wholeheartedly say that my life in the past few weeks has become utterly absurd,” said Donegal native Oisín Moyne (24), who had hoped to make his directorial debut with the Samuel Beckett work about the irrationalism of life.
The play, in which Vladimir and Estragon are occasionally joined by other male characters as they await someone who never arrives, had been in rehearsals since November and was due to be staged at the University of Groningen’s Usva student cultural centre in March.
But the performances were cancelled after the venue discovered the casting call for the play’s five male roles had been open to men only, something they informed the production team went against a university inclusivity policy.
“If it concerned a play with five white guys that they’d held open auditions for, everything would have been fine. But you can’t ban people right from the start,” Usva theatre programmer Bram Douwes told the Ukrant newspaper.
A spokesperson for the University of Groningen said that times had moved on since the play was first staged in 1953.
“[Beckett] explicitly stated that this play should be performed by five men. Moving forward, times have changed. And that the idea that only men are suitable for this role is outdated and even discriminatory,” university press officer Elies Kouwenhoven said.
“We as a university stand for an open inclusive community where it is not appropriate to exclude others, on any basis.”
Mr Moyne told The Irish Times he had considered casting people of other genders for the roles, but could not do so because of rules set down by the playwright before his death and upheld by the Beckett estate.
Beckett sued a Dutch theatre company in 1988 for choosing to cast women in the play, the best known work from the Theatre of the Absurd movement. His estate holds the rights to the work until 2059, and has continued to oppose productions that deviate from Beckett’s instructions.
There have been efforts to challenge these restrictions – seen by some as increasingly archaic. In France in 1991, a judge ruled that the play could be performed by a female cast at a festival in Avignon, but only if a letter of objection from the late playwright’s representative was read before each show.
In late 2019, an Ohio college cancelled an all-female production of the play, fearing a lawsuit by Beckett’s estate. And in 2021, a non-binary member of the British clown theatre company Silent Faces staged Godot is a Woman, a play tackling the gender rules around Beckett’s work.
In the case of the Groningen production, context was laid out in the casting call, which read that “unfortunately no leniency can be afforded in this casting”, and linked to reports about the willingness of the estate to take legal action in the past. The agency managing the rights did not respond to a request for comment at time of publication.
The play’s producer, Medeea Anton (24), said the decision to cancel overlooked the important role of the non-acting crew in the production of the play.
“Although there was a restriction on the actors, which are only five people in this production, the rest of our production is majority female. We also have trans people, we have non-binary individuals, the majority of the production is people from the LGBT community,” she said.
“I tried to explain to them that it is a legal thing, and that we are a small, amateur theatre society, and we cannot afford to be sued. But nothing I could say during the meeting could change their minds.”
Moyne, who moved to Groningen to study physics and now works locally, said it had been a “wild two weeks” and stressful for all those involved.
“I’ve had to unfortunately tell my parents that the show might not be happening, and they were planning to fly over. A friend from home who I haven’t seen in a long time is visiting the city and was going to see the play, and I had to tell her that wasn’t going to happen,” he said.
He expressed hope that the cultural centre would now use the freed-up performance slots to host an event to promote inclusivity in theatre, and that they were now seeking an venue so that the rehearsals do not go to waste.
“A few members of cast and crew have already made the joke that, hilariously, we’re all now waiting for Godot.”