Watt theatre review (Melbourne Festival)

It’s worth reflecting on what Watt is and what Watt is not.

Which is not Knott.

He is not Knott.

He is Watt.

Or not.

Watt not, possibly; but not Knott.

Knott is Knott.

Knott is not Watt.

Watt is…what?

What Watt was not (Knott), to begin with, was a play by Samuel Beckett. Which is odd, because this piece feels so completely not-a-novel; but a story (of nothing, or something – we can’t be sure) quite beautifully realised as theatre, with the jokes, the puns, the word-play, more swiftly realised by the ear than the eye.

Beckett was dissatisfied with the original work which, even as a novel, is a kind of Ur-Godot, thematically. But Barry McGovern’s insinuating Irish cadence liberates it from the page, confirming a foreshadowing of form as well as substance. The adaptation (also by McGovern) is a ruthless edit, excising major episodes, impracticable to stage, in Watt’s story, and making for a much tighter piece than might otherwise have been realised.

It’s a kind of shaggy dog story really, with a road (train) trip – or, more properly, journey -an arrival at an imposing house (not haunted. Or, possibly, Knott haunted), and Watt, the fastidious observer and chronicler of detail in a world where nothing can be trusted or even inferred. Where nothing is something or something is nothing.

For a time, Watt – clad in a coat, his father’s hat, a brown shoe, and a boot he bought from a one- legged man (he’s every bit as much a Tramp as any Vladimir or Estragon – both of whom McGovern has played) – will work for the owner of this house, a Mr Knott.

The theatre (set and lighting by Sinéad Mckenna) is stripped to the back wall of the stage which makes for a wonderful (and vast) bleakness. It also feels a little as though this is a show filling an otherwise empty slot, rather than one claiming space of its own.

Then again, given the circumstances in which the novel was created – while Beckett was hiding from the Gestapo in an old farmhouse after most of his Resistance cell ‘Gloria’ had been betrayed – a ‘borrowed space’ seems not inappropriate. While Beckett’s devotion to ‘not-knowing’, to ex or sub -traction would seem to support any such possible happenstance.

Otherwise, a chair, and a hat stand. And large window of many lights, pitched at a fairly steep angle, and hanging from above.

And McGovern, whose performance is quite quite wonderful.

His Watt is a somewhat lugubrious presence, at once resigned and perplexed but McGovern’s delivery is incisive and particular, gravely extracting every nuance, every insinuation, every intimation from the material and Tom Creed’s disceet direction allows him full reign.

Watt is outrageously, outlandishly funny – so densely packed you almost feel you can’t allow yourself to laugh too loud lest you miss some weird conjunction, some bizarre juxtaposition of sound and sense. It’s not all verbal pyrotechnics and gymnastics, there are strangely, weirdly, tender moments, like the romance (if you can call it that) with Mrs Gorman whose ‘unfortunate surgery’ has robbed her of one breast. And one feels an unease, a disquiet as Watt persists, forensic in his surreal and intense attempts to extract some confirmable meaning, to assert some definite conclusion regarding the things around him.

The Galls – a father and son enterprise who turn up to tune the piano – might have it best:

The piano is doomed, in my opinion, said the younger.

The piano tuner also, said the elder

If you have some sort of Beckett phobia, this might be the cure. If you’re tired of the shouting world, this radiant, exquisitely judged performance, might lift your heart.

This something may, indeed, be nothing. But as nothings go, it’s really something.

Watt (adapted from the Beckett novel and directed by Tom Creed) is at the Arts Centre Melbourne until October 13 

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