Waiting for Shitness, and, Rolling with the Shitness

Blog by RJ Thomson | 30 Mar 2009
  • Waiting for Godot

The touring production of Waiting for Godot, that comes to the King’s Theatre this month and stars Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart and Simon Callow, is going to be shit. I know this may seem a little pre-emptive, for sure I haven’t seen it yet, but sometimes you just know, you know?

I mean, you can get a hunch of it from some of the pre tour publicity. “We're making it in the furnace of art" Simon Callow rather ridiculously said on the Today programme. Good one.

But, it’s pretty much a factual certainty too. Plainly, these are actors with nothing to lose: in the later stages of their careers, they have all played enough by way of highly-accomplished roles, and made enough money, for this performance to make very little difference to their enduring reputations or comfort levels.

This matters especially with Waiting for Godot, a play that was, at its time, highly uncertain and experimental in form, and remains a work fundamentally concerned with proximity to the edge. For all that not much happens during the play, there is the pervading threat that if the characters leave the stage undefined outsiders will beat them up and throw them in a ditch; and the psychologically far-out ramblings the protagonists exchange betray humanity at a fairly desperate stage.

Done smugly, a production of Waiting For Godot won’t approach representing what its actually about. And this will inevitably be a smug production.

I’ll be meaner still, and state that these actors are all skilled enough to act as if there is something at stake, even when there’s not. Some folks will be tricked by this.

My strong sense is that the ‘furnace of art’ Callow refers to is very specifically this arena of delusion: experienced professionals rehearsing themselves to a level of seeming relevance. Hard work, undoubtedly, but almost the exact opposite of what the actor seems to be trying to refer to.

Waiting for Godot was the text that really got me as a teenager and made me realise there’s more to art than a good story, an appealing image, or a moving tune. If you’ve got good jokes, and interesting ideas, it can be as entertaining as anything (and I’m taking ‘jokes’ in about the broadest possible definition here: a clever drumbeat can be just as much a ‘joke’ as a wisecrack). So my before-the-event bitterness comes from a sense of protectiveness. And sure enough, I’ve got my ticket.

The last thing I want to do is come across all jaded though, so it makes sense to point to something genuinely exciting on this month, by way of contrast. A desire for the challenging has been one of the defining characteristics of Jackie Wylie’s tenure so far as Artistic Director at The Arches. She takes a further step in that direction this month, with the debut of the rebranded Arches Theatre Festival, Behaviour. Our full length preview is here.

For those who value these things, how to retain your valuable bruised exposure throughout an artistic career is an undeniable challenge. This month we have an extended word with one of the most high-profile of edgy performers of recent years: Keith Flint of The Prodigy. (Look out for a major exclusive interview with Flint, as well as a word with XL Records founder Nick Halkes on signing the band back in the early 90s, being posted on the site in the next couple of days.)

He’s very articulate and honest about the tough times the band have been through, but there is a slight inconsistency there. While he doesn’t hold many fond memories from the time that followed the release of the hugely successful The Fat of the Land album, he goes on to say that his favourite Prodigy album is Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned, the album that immediately followed this period. My own critical judgement aside, it’s interesting that Flint can make this statement without necessarily spotting the link: that good work came after bad experiences (there’s no reason why he should; even the most committed makers can be excused some will to happiness).

But this story is in keeping with the old idea of art coming from, if not suffering, then strife or discomfort. Evidence from all fields of creative practice suggests that there is an intensity that must be maintained to create the best work, and that this intensity in turn either takes its own toll or can feed from (under the right circumstances) tough times.

And, whether Flint realises exactly how or why they’ve come the route they have, there’s no denying that The Prodigy have got the records and the performances under their belt to make their history worth studying. Even more to the point, they’re worth catching live, and here in Scotland we’re lucky enough to have two chances to over the next few months, as they’re playing the SECC this month, and the best-line-up-yet (Daft Punk glory excepted) RockNess in June. Everybody in the place…