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Barry McGovern - tall, gaunt, physically precise and vocally prodigious - is one of Ireland's greatest actors, and a Beckett specialist who is running out of roles. He's played both tramps and Lucky in Waiting for Godot, Clov in Endgame, Willie in Happy Days, Krapp and countless others in the short pieces and radio plays.
He first turned to Beckett's novels with a famous selection of extracts titled
I'll Go On, and he goes on at the Barbican with his second visit, Watt, premiered at the Gate Theatre in Dublin in 2010 and rightly acclaimed at last year's Edinburgh International Festival.
Beckett wrote the novel on the run from the Gestapo during the war, and it's a curious mixture of Joycean word play, bizarre encounters, chop logic nonsense comedy and philosophical digression, as the unfortunate dreamer Watt travels from Dublin to the house of his employment with the mysterious Mr Knott, and back again.
Watt knows not Knott, nor Knott Watt, or what's what or what's not or what not. And so on for many pages. McGovern sifts it all down to 50 minutes of comedy and terror, making hilarious expression of the curious sideways walk that Beckett takes paragraphs to describe.
“ Watt knows not Knott, nor Knott Watt, or what's what or what's not or what not ”
He also gives full value to the juiciest episodes featuring the father and son piano tuners known as the Galls; the business of leaving and collecting the remains of Knott's food; and his sexual fumbling with the one-breasted gorgon Mrs Gorman with whom, despite all their "interversions," he never went (or, presumably, came).
McGovern is Watt but speaking in the third person, as does the novel's narrator, arriving on the station, and departing, in long greatcoat, black trilby and carrying two small cases. His white shirt is collarless; Watt had no collar and therefore no tie, no tie and therefore no collar. He dons a tailcoat which defines his job in Knott's house, but as what Watt, or indeed which Watt? Valet, butler, flunkey, attendant? All such figures, perhaps.
It's fascinating to see how a great comic writer reined in all this blather, keeping the best of its characteristics for great comic drama, and McGovern exposes that process in his virtuosic delivery of the prose as a stage turn. The rhythm and rhetorical devices of Beckett's prose is perhaps best enjoyed anyway when spoken out loud; and certainly when spoken by an actor as brilliant as McGovern.
- by Michael Coveney