Long before he first met Samuel Beckett, the writer who would come to define his professional life, the genial German director Walter Asmus had rarely found a satisfying encounter with a famous playwright.
Living in London in the 1960s as a student of literature, Asmus first attempted to interview John Osborne, the original angry young man – a group of prominent British playwrights and novelists in the 1950s – "but he just drove away in his Rolls Royce". He tried again with Harold Pinter, "but his agent told me, 'Mr Pinter is supposed to write plays, not to give interviews', and slammed the door in my face".
So, when in 1975 Asmus had an opportunity to be Samuel Beckett's assistant director on a new production of Waiting for Godot at Berlin's Schiller Theater, he didn't get his hopes up.
"I was sort of scared of Samuel Beckett," he tells me, sitting in the small performance space of the Royal Court Theatre, where rehearsals are underway for a trio of Beckett's short "dramaticules", Not I/ Footfalls/Rockaby, with the acclaimed performer Lisa Dwan.
"John Osborne came easier to me. Harold Pinter, with The Caretaker and so on, was more approachable. You had better access to them."
Nonetheless, following this fraught and successful production, Beckett deputised Asmus as his director of choice and the two worked closely together until the end of Beckett’s life.
Asmus has since directed every Beckett play, including dozens of Godots, two of which have been hailed, paradoxically, as the play's "definitive production".
To many, Asmus – a neat and attentive man in his 70s with small round glasses and tightly cropped silver hair – is Samuel Beckett’s representative on Earth.
Asmus's first experience of Godot was as a mystified schoolboy at a touring production in his provincial German hometown. "Nobody, of course, knew what it was all about, but everyone was intrigued by it," he says now. His next contact with the work was as director of an aborted heretical student production, featuring a female cast, in Hamburg. "We didn't think about Samuel Beckett perhaps intervening and preventing it."
He never saw the influence he was to have coming. “I think I was just naive,” he says of his first encounter with Beckett. “I was just curious to meet the man and work with him. I think I was not intruding. I was not imposing on him anything. I knew where my place was – that’s what the English say, I think? He appreciated it.
“Every now and then he would turn around and say, ‘What do you think?’ I was shaken. He had an eye for things that interested him – paintings and so on that met his inner core – and he had an eye for people. Looking back, I feel absolutely blessed and honoured that we stayed together for more or less 18 years. Perhaps he saw something in myself which I never saw.”
Asmus has helped to provide a more vivid picture of both the artist and the man to Beckett scholars, whom the director will entertain with occasional anecdotes and an impression of Beckett that invariably takes the shape of a husky whisper.
The notion of Beckett as an inflexible authoritarian, for instance, has been challenged by Asmus’s reports of his collaborative spirit in the rehearsal room, his readiness to change and alter.
"He had his absolute vision of something. But he knew, professionally, when the music was wrong." Beckett could be cutting, replying to gentle advice with sarcasm, but he could vulnerable too. Turning to Asmus once during rehearsals for Godot, he said, "Walter, I hate this play".
“That is exactly the experience I’ve had as a director all my life,” says Asmus. “That makes him so human. Working with your vision, a piece of beautiful, perfect writing on the page, with all the hustle around you, there very often comes a point where you feel deeply frustrated when you don’t get it all at once. It’s a hard road you go as a director. As an actor, too.”
There is an obvious irony here. Beckett's plays are among the most astonishing evocations of human frustration and despair, and rehearsals could be similar experiences ("to have to listen to these words day after day has become torture," Beckett once confided to another correspondent). Yet to achieve them brought Beckett an immense satisfaction. Once the actors had cracked Godot's brisk exchange about Christ and the two thieves, Asmus recalls Beckett sitting in the front row of the huge Schiller theatre, "watching like a schoolboy. He was fascinated with how they did it, how they had this – tap tap tap – ping-pong exchange and so on. That again tells you how completely involved he was, from the hell of frustration and setbacks to the moments of relief. The satisfaction when the music was right."
The music of Beckett changes its rhythm, though, from year to year and generation to generation. Asmus agrees that it is a strange accolade to have any production of a play regarded as "definitive", a critical garland that has been bestowed on both Beckett's production of Godot at the Schiller and his own production, for the Gate Theatre, in 1991, revived regularly for 18 years after.
“You can’t think about it. You mustn’t think about it. Basically, I didn’t change any of the design of the 1975 production in Berlin and yet it was a completely different production. That has to do with the actors, with the Irish idiom, perhaps, but it has to do with my own existence. I put my heart in it. From 1975 to 1991 is a considerable time gap. It’s the same with the young people nowadays.”
He mimes the repetitive movements of the smart phone generation: tap tap tap. "Different times, different feelings in your life."
Dwan speeds things up
It is not coincidental, perhaps, that Lisa Dwan first came to his attention with a performance of Not I – the frantic, frenetic monologue of a disembodied mouth – that had reduced the legendary Billie Whitelaw's performance time of 14 minutes down to nine. By presenting Dwan in these three pieces, which move from disarray to disintegration to death in less than an hour, is the staging aiming to correspond with our contemporary moment? Is this bringing Beckett up to speed?
"I think you're right. Not I hits a nerve in people. It goes into people's bellies, so to speak. We think faster now. We are faster. My production at the Gate was faster than the 1975 production. It has to have an inner truthfulness. It is not just speed. It is Lisa, you know, with her background, her experience, which makes it fascinating."
As the interview vastly exceeds its allotted hour, Dwan returns from her lunch break. “Walter could reproduce any play from the 1970s very easily, but the journey we went on was to find Beckett today. We wouldn’t have got away with [reproducing] Billie’s heavily stylised version. It had to be today. It had to be current. We met in the middle. There were scary times and tense times. It’s difficult work. It’s been extremely worth it.”
Just as Asmus dismisses the tendency to sell Beckett on the strength of his comedy – “everybody says, where are the laughs, where is the humour? It’s all just a lie, avoiding the truth, the bleakness of existence” – so he asks his performers to dig deeper with every staging. “I don’t care about last time,” he would tell the Gate’s grumbling cast. “That’s the snow from yesterday, as we say in Germany. I’m convinced that theatre is a horrible business. Make this the headline. You have to be on the spot every night as an actor. You are damn lonesome standing out there.”
It’s asking a lot, but Dwan trusts Asmus, just as Beckett trusted him. Is trust a heavy debt? “It’s never been a heavy debt for me,” he says. “Trust is more about trusting the text, trusting the play, not imposing anything on the play. That was never my thing. He knew that.”
Asmus illustrates with one more anecdote, recalling a production of Come and Go he directed next to a production of Play, which Beckett directed. Beckett attended Asmus's rehearsals and grew increasingly perturbed by the sight of onstage props and costumes not featured in the text, which gave the play a very specific context: Atlantic City. Beckett sighed with weary disapproval. Asmus leaned over, reassuringly, and said, "Sam. All this will disappear. Don't worry." Beckett, always a fan of lessness, turned to him and said in a dry whisper, "Walter, I trust you."
Not I/Footfalls/Rockaby is at the Galway International Arts Festival until Saturday (sold out) and the Mac, Belfast September 2-6