The Waiting Game review: ‘There is no glamour. It’s endless. Absolute murder’

It’s taken eight years for this tour diary to make it on to our screens, and for Johnny Murphy it marked the end of his acting road

In a turn of events that might occupy Beckett's tramps Vladimir and Estragon - or at least help them pass the time The Waiting Game (Tues, RTÉ One, 10.15pm) arrives to the screen following a lengthy delay.

The programme, a documentary on the Gate Theatre's all-Ireland tour of Waiting for Godot, is either shy or tactful about exploring the reasons behind why a film shot during 2008 – ostensibly as a theatrical tour diary – should only see the light of day nearly a decade later. But as it opens, in a graveyard in Dublin earlier this year, the cause is solemnly acknowledged. This marks the death of one of Ireland's celebrated actors of stage and screen, Johnny Murphy, a man indelibly associated with the Gate's production and to whom the demands of this tour had not been kind.

In 1991, when this storied version was first mounted, directed by Beckett's protégé Walter Asmus, Murphy was cast as Estragon, a sensitive soul who complains ceaselessly about his feet, his failing health, his feelings. He performed opposite Vladimir, a cerebral counterbalance of dry determination, played by Barry McGovern. Rarely have two performers been cast with as much aptness or foresight, and together with Alan Stanford and Stephen Brennan, as the master and slave Pozzo and Lucky, they would perform these roles, on and off, for the next 18 years. "Maybe they've become like the characters they're playing," suggests the Gate's director Michael Colgan, whose interviews here have a sententious shapeliness, as though instructing the course of a quite different documentary. That programme might have been a jaunty depiction of four actors on the road, sharing a tour bus of unusual plushness, as they wrestle with Samuel Beckett's famously dense tragicomedy, and perhaps each other, which is presumably the one that director/producer David Blake Knox had intended to make.

The documentary is quickly overtaken by something it hasn’t anticipated, though, and to which it cannot comfortably adjust, as Murphy’s ill health moves from a passingly addressed subplot to the overarching narrative. There is a sad irony here, in which actors who have been living with perhaps one of the most sustained pieces ever written on decline and mortality become hesitant about the grim reality backstage. Godot is unflinching and unsentimental about the humiliations of existence: “They give birth astride a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.” The actors, you can appreciate, are not.

Each armed with their own camera for self-recording, we hear them say frequently, that Johnny is “absolutely determined”, “a real trooper”, which increasingly feels like grease painting over the problem. This is not a view shared either by Johnny or the cameras. “It’s tough,” he says, sinking into a couch in exhaustion, his voice tightening: “There is no glamour attached to this at all. It’s endless. Absolute murder.”

That offers more insight into the substance of the play than the documentary itself can muster, treating Beckett’s writing like a series of digestible quotes delivered on title cards, irrespective of context (“I can’t go on… I’ll go on….” “Ever tried, ever failed...”).

It is more truthful, and close to embarrassed, when it shows the actors in deep frustration at being filmed in the circumstances, remaining circumspect about how affected the tour’s later performances became.

“I think it might be the end of the road for me and acting,” says Murphy at the conclusion of the tour. He was right. Shortly after the tour ended Murphy was diagnosed with cancer. The documentary is thus delivered, at this respectful distance, as a form of tribute, but it conveys every sense that it would rather not exist at all. That, Murphy would recognise, is close to Estragon’s lament. “I can’t go on like this,” he says, with no other prospect than endurance. “That’s what you think,” comes Vladimir’s patient reply.