War drums beat over Beckett


The addition of 'illegal' music to an Australian production of Waiting for Godot added intellectual and emotional sparks to the Beckett Symposium. Ruth Skilbeck reports from Sydney

Among the sambas, the mambos, the merengues, the bombas and cha-cha-chas, all the frenetic sweaty heat of Latin dancing in this year's annual Sydney Arts Festival, a clear distinctive ironic voice is to be heard:

"Would you like me to make him think something for us?"

"I'd prefer him to dance, it would be more fun."

"Not necessarily."

- Waiting for Godot

The heated debate and public controversy which erupted in Sydney following the recent opening of a new production of Beckett's iconic existential masterpiece, Waiting for Godot, as part of the Sydney Festival's Beckett Celebration, has proved that - even in the context of a big, hot, summer arts festival - thinking, and talking, about Beckett can be almost as much, if not more, fun than dancing.

Appropriately enough, the controversy dividing Beckett purists and theatre populists, and making everyone else in Sydney arts circles scratch their heads, is all about music, with the central question being: should the works of a dead playwright include music he might never have intended to be there?

Absolutely not, according to the playwright's nephew, and keeper of his estate, Edward Beckett (now seen by many in Sydney theatre circles as a major party-pooper).

Since 2001, Edward Beckett has vigilantly managed the Beckett estate, including19 plays and seven novels, and permission to produce the plays is tightly controlled by contracts with strict rules designed to ensure the meticulous stage directions are followed to the letter.

Unaware that he might doing anything amiss, and in an attempt, he says, to make the play more "accessible" to local audiences, Company B's director Neil Armfield added a percussion accompaniment to his Belvoir Street Theatre production of Godot, staged in the small, much-loved local theatre of inner-city Surrey Hills. The opening night of the production celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first performance of the play in the tiny Theatre de Babylone in Paris. At that original performance, fist fights broke out in the interval among a bewildered audience, who were unable to agree on the meaning of the world's most renowned play without a plot.

Meanwhile, Edward Beckett, with his wife Felicity, had flown to Australia, especially for the Beckett Celebration, and would attend the first Australian hosting of the International Beckett Symposium, a biennial four-day multi-faceted cultural symposium, which draws together the world's leading Beckett scholars, and directors, among whom are several who were close friends of the playwright.

This year's International Beckett Symposium in Sydney, after beckett d'après beckett, drew aeminent line-up of scholars including double Booker Prize-winner J.M. Coetzee, who wrote his PhD on Beckett and has recently moved to Australia; Professor Herbert Blau, leading performance theorist who founded the avant garde Actors' Studio in San Francisco in the late 1960s, and who has directed many acclaimed Beckett productions; Professor Ruby Cohn, scholar and close friend of Beckett's for over 30 years; and S.E Gontarski, editor of the Beckett Journal of Studies who organised the first Beckett Symposium in 1981 in collaboration with "Sam" to mark Beckett's 75th birthday.

The Beckett Celebration, including the symposium, was the result of an innovative, two year collaboration between the University of Western Sydney - a relatively small, often rather marginalised, city university - and the Sydney Arts Festival, including liaison with the Sydney Theatre Company and Company B Belvoir.

More than worldwide 150 delegates were attracted by the prospect of a scholarly summer conference in Sydney. Right out on the sparkling waters of the harbour, in view of the harbour bridge at Wharf 1, a converted pier warehouse and spacious home of Sydney Theatre Company, Endgame, the second new production of the Beckett Celebration, is currently in (unchallenged) performance. The third string to the bow of the Beckett Celebration organisers was the Australian première of Beckett on Film, the ambitious filming of all 19 plays.

All seemed set for a convivial few days of scholarly debate and cultural exchange against the distant pulsating carnival backdrop of Latin dancing in nearby Darling Harbour. There were films to watch, papers to listen to and discuss - on topics from "Reflections of a Beckett Virgin" (Hugo Browne Anderson) to "What it was about I had not the slightest idea - Postmodern anti-detection in Samuel Beckett's Molloy" ( Betina Simonsen) - and, of course, the two new Beckett productions. But when Edward Beckett attended the opening preview of Waiting for Godot and heard the drum rolls coming from the drum kit poised above the stage, all hell broke loose.

Armfield's production stars two of Australia's best-known and respected actors, Max Cullen as Gogo and John Gaden as Didi. It brings out the vaudeville humour of the tragi-comic clown duo waiting in eternal limbo for the unknown Godot. It is aimed, Armfield tells me, to appeal to "everyday Australians not Beckett purists".

Cullen brings his Irish ancestry to bear on his role. It's a populist performance that Sydney critics have agreed emphasises a knockabout, although laconic, outlook, and is seen as a celebration of failure, all qualities which are widely regarded as typically "Australian".

Then there is the music. As Lucky (the deranged master Pozzo's slave) breaks from down-trodden silence into impassioned gibberish, drums roll and cymbals clash, the percussion escalating to an almighty crescendo.

After the show, the cast waited for their distinguished guest to arrive. But, like Godot, Edward Beckett failed to show. Instead, in the foyer, he angrily confronted Armfield with an ultimatum: remove the "illegal" music or he would have Company B's production closed down by his legal team. The grounds cited were the contravention of the contract.

Armfield refused the Beckett estate's demands. And as it turned out, the contract the entire cast had been required to sign was not as binding as Beckett had believed.

"I was speaking to Michael Colgan last night, and apparently when Edward Beckett walked into the theatre and saw the percussion on the loft he thought it was a direct and aggressive attack on the Beckett estate," Neil Armfield told me, in Sydney. "But it was completely unintentional, there was nothing in our contract about not including music."

The production (set to run until the February 23rd) is now playing to full houses with extra performances to cope with demand, proving not only the old adage that a touch of controversy does the box office no harm, but also that Beckett's work is gaining a wider audience in Australia. Armfield says, "We would like to extend the season but, after this, I am sure we won't get an extension on the contract. On the other hand it has thrown up a lot of very interesting points. How much a playwright can control his work beyond the grave, and what artistic rights does an estate have even if they are acting in the best interests of the work they're trying to protect."

In a final Beckett Symposium directors' session, after keeping a diplomatic silence all week, Armfield let fly in a passionate, controversial speech. "In coming here with its narrow prescriptions, its dead controlling hand, its list of 'not alloweds', the Beckett estate seems to me to be the enemy of art," he stormed to an audience of equally vocal Beckett scholars at the Wharf.

"If there is something to hope for at this watershed 50th anniversary of the play ... it is that Edward gives his uncle's work back to artists to work with. Let it go. Because if he doesn't he's consigning it to a slow death by a thousand hacks."

Later Armfield said: "I feel when a work is as great as Godot, it belongs to the world. No one is going to bother spending the time, energy and love on a work if they want to destroy the work. They might screw it up, but it's only through the process of works being produced that works get renewed and reborn."

Armfield sees as strong relevance of Beckett to Australian audiences. "Australia clearly has a connection with the Irish sense of humour and sense of the world. Australia has strong colonial links with Ireland. We have a way of getting the work's sense of humour. I also think there is a kind of desperate sense of terror behind the work and for me it's not so much Australia that can connect with the work, but the whole world."

The Beckett estate departed to visit Tasmania and was not available to comment.

"When things go wrong at a Beckett conference, everyone always says it's very Beckettish," says delegate Dr Anthony Macris, Australian academic and author of the internationally well received novel, Capital.

Despite - perhaps, in part, because of - the very public intellectual and emotional sparks, the symposium was deemed a great success.

It brought together artists from many fields, all of whose work is informed by Beckett, says Anthony Uhlmann. "There's been a full and frank exchange with the areas which are concerned with these disciplines. It's been a major cultural event for Australia."

Waiting for Godot runs until Feb 23rd, Belvoir Theatre, Surrey Hills, Sydney. Endgame runs until Feb 2nd, Sydney Theatre Company, Wharf 1, Sydney. The Sydney Festival runs until January 27th. Two volumes of conference papers from the Symposium are being published by The Journal of Beckett Studies and Samuel Beckett Aujourd-Hui. The next Beckett Symposium will be held in Trinity College, Dublin in 2006, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Beckett's birth.

Ruth Skilbeck is a Sydney-based arts and fiction writer