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You’d be forgiven for thinking we’ve perhaps seen all there is to see of the acclaimed Irish playwright Samuel Beckett. After all, there have been a myriad Vladimirs and Estragons left Waiting for Godot, and Krapp’s Last Tape must surely count as overplayed by now. Just when it seemed like there may be nothing new to discover in Beckett’s work, along comes the frighteningly talented Barry McGovern to breathe new dramatic life into some less likely source material. The narrative in the 1945 novel Watt follows a few years in the life of an unprepossessing manservant. As with much of Beckett’s writing, the novel is wilfully inscrutable at times, containing a huge amount of repetition and infuriating wordplay. It must have seemed a tall order to make any of this accessible for the theatre, even given the insatiable appetite for Beckett on the part of the theatre-going public. However it quickly became clear that we were in safe hands with McGovern, and the rest of the small creative team behind this adaptation at the Barbican.
McGovern shuffles onto the black box stage of the Barbican’s Pit Theatre, seemingly as unassuming as the character he is about to describe: a dull-coloured coat, wide eyes and short white hair. Could this man really hold our attention for the next 50 minutes? And on a stage sparsely furnished with a hat stand, a chair and nothing more? But McGovern is the kind of actor who subtly grabs you and makes you forget he’s the only person you’re watching. His warm, genial tones – a suitably soft Irish accent – make him the perfect guide to the rather meandering tale of Watt, a character study of someone who seems to drift through life. We are introduced to other people along the way, we learn about the eccentricities of Watt’s new employer Mr Knott and his brief dalliances with a local woman (in which the aforementioned chair is heavily involved), but this adaptation wisely sticks to Watt’s perspective for the most part. It is, however, hard to say whether we actually learn anything about Watt himself. What is the point of this narrative? Is Watt searching for something, and does he find it?
It seems that, in this case, it’s less about the journey and more about the presentation. Amid a flurry of words, there are incredibly beautiful moments here, described and staged with admirable simplicity. At one point, the recorded strains of a choir intrude on the action, and McGovern stands stock still, listening with a bemused interest as if he (or Watt) likes what he hears but struggles to fully comprehend it. The same could be said for his audience. We enjoy the show – particularly the frequent injection of surreal black comedy, which gives rise to torrents of appreciative laughter – but is that enough?
As the play moved towards its quiet conclusion, accompanied by a slow dimming of the spotlight which had been trained on McGovern throughout, I confess to feeling a little hazy about exactly what I’d just been watching. The lilting rhythms of the actor’s voice, accompanied by the pace of the prose, had an almost soporific effect: Watt’s world is not one that could possibly be hurried through, but equally it’s not one that can be simply shaken off afterwards. I left the theatre somewhat dazed, and it took a little while for me to feel like I’d stepped back from this keyhole glimpse into Watt’s life, granted to me by McGovern. All in all, this is a production that conjures up something astounding from the least promising of places, and which lingers at the fringes of your perception. There’s a little bit of Watt in us all . . . or is there?