Mike Nichols's much heralded production of Waiting for Godot at New York's Lincoln Centre is based on a new text received from Samuel Beckett in August just in time for rehearsals. Until this new text is published, it is hard to say just how much Beckett is responsible for turning Godot into a tropical American comedy, with even a joke about the election.
Certainly comedian Robin Williams, the master improviser, broke the promise he made in rehearsals to play Estragon straight with no riffing. While the master of mime, Bill Irwin, was in the middle of Lucky's intellectual ramble, Williams apparently could restrain himself no longer and, in the manner of a stand up comic seeking audience participation, he ambled over to the front row and borrowed a woman's programme. He giggled wildly when he spotted his own name in it and then shared the joke with Vladimir, played by Steve Martin.
The audience's laughter seemed to inspire him to stray even further from the text. Seeing Bill Irvin still crazily orating, he cried at him "you're a liberal" and the audience, recognising the allusion to Michael Dukakis, laughed even louder. The audience seemed to be all for the improvisations and additions to the text. At the interval an actor behind me praised Robin Williams for being "remarkably controlled" and he was serious.
Beckett's drama certainly lost its bleakness and sense of "nothingness" with Messrs Williams and Martin enlivening it with almost every classic comedy routine from Laurel and Hardy slapstick to a Charlie Chaplin game with a bowler hat. There was even a Robin Williams mocking impersonation of military macho. Whether any of it was spontaneous improvisation from their extensive repertoire or whether it was all carefully rehearsed one couldn't be sure, but Mike Nichols's original conception seemed to be to stress the comic side by Americanising the play with Martin and Williams in seedy clothes resembling two of New York's homeless waiting not for Godot but for free dinners.
Godot's symbols and double meaning faded into the background as this duet took over. There is nothing like broad comedy of the Williams and Martin kind to bring a dramatist down to earth. Beckett's pregnant pauses and dramatic use of silence that can seem so dull and draggy in more solemn productions was here a wonderful excuse for matchless mime worthy of the great silent comedies, but inevitably some of the meaning of Beckett's fable of Everyman was lost in the fun.
F. Murray Abraham's Pozzo and Irwin's Lucky the slave master and his slave were strangely the only characters who were not Americanised or fitted into the comedy act although it would have been easy to do so just by casting a black actor as Lucky.
The biggest loss came at the end when Steve Martin's twilight soliloquy seemed too low key and to be playing on the audience's sentimental sympathy after his continual high spirits of the preceeding two acts. Martin's professional manner, bland with a touch of genuine innocence, so amusing when he was playing the bum picking fleas off his seedy clothes, appeared too solemn when he was seriously philosophising. He met the fate of any comedian who plays Hamlet. One noticed not only what a fake philosopher he was but also what a fake bum.
Turning Beckett's feast of agnostic irony into a series of revue sketches threatened to make Godot no more than a vehicle for Martin's and Williams' favourite routines. Steve Martin in a film recently turned Cyrano de Bergerac into a contemporary American with a long nose and he has now done much the same with Vladimir. As Mike Nichols did not stride on stage to demand what the hell Williams was doing, his improvisations presumably had the director's approval. But one wonders if there will be any negative reaction when news reaches the author in Paris.