Barry McGovern in 'Watt' by Samuel Beckett. Photo: Jeff Clarke

Barry McGovern in 'Watt' by Samuel Beckett. Photo: Jeff Clarke

Barry McGovern in 'Watt' by Samuel Beckett. Photo: Jeff Clarke

Barry McGovern in 'Watt' by Samuel Beckett. Photo: Jeff Clarke

What Watt play by Samuel Beckett? In this Gate Theatre production, Galway Arts Festival audiences discovered that even Beckett will school-boyishly pun in actor Barry McGovern’s engaging and quietly confident stage animation of the 1945 book.

The ‘difficult’ original is purposely disjointed and told in a narrative voice that shifts and changes unpredictably. For this stage version, fortunately Watt is given a bit of linear plot. Although it is still tricky to link the events and to digest Beckett’s meandering, inimitable language, the production creates a definite beginning, middle and end for an audience to cling to in its ordering and editing of chunks of the original text – what the producers call “a distillation of the essence of the book”.

Barry McGovern, noted Beckett expert, narrates the story of Watt’s employment with the mysterious Mr. Knot. McGovern, perhaps playing a servant in Mr. Knot’s house, arrives on stage, removes his overcoat and hat and deposits his various valises. He recites the selected sections of the book from different positions on the stage with accompanying gestures and movements that illustrate aspects of the events described. Costumed in dress tails (but no tie) and ubiquitous Beckett bowler hat, it is as if he has just finished recording in a pre-war BBC studio or presenting a concert recital. Such formal attire lends this narrator a gentle authority, a certain absurd propriety (highlighted by his sartorially incongruous brown shoes) and helps explain the direct address to the audience.

Against a black backcloth with a single chair and a hat stand as the set, attention on McGovern’s face is tightly and dramatically focussed by James McConnell’s predominantly front-lighting. McGovern describes Watt’s arrival at the railway station, his train journey, his visit to the races and the exploration of Mr. Knot’s house. We learn that Watt and the people he meets live a Beckettian existence: life is futile, prosaic, repetitive, punctuated by anticlimaxes and quite often ridiculous. Once the tale closes, our narrator re-dresses in his outdoor clothes, picks up his cases as if to go and stands facing the audience as the lighting fades to black.

Loops of repeated phrases emphasising seemingly minor events, subtle contradictions and verbal paradoxes, unusual relationships between verb, adverb and noun and adjective, lists of deliberately convoluted descriptions of the “his mother’s mother’s father’s father’s brother” type swarm the text. It is a careful, muscular, intriguing and intricate assemblage of words, words, words shaping the puzzling world that Watt and his acquaintances struggle to occupy and understand.

Watt, however dense, is delivered carefully and with reassuring authority in this production. Director Tom Creed and McGovern ensure that each gesture, facial twitch, eyebrow rise, and vocal inflection is purposeful, conscious and choreographed. Such meticulous attention to detail certainly matches the fastidiousness nature of the original text. The movements, in their exactitude (note the illustration of the rocking milk churn on the station platform or the very particular placing of the cases by the hat-stand, for example), also seem to pay homage to the minutely comprehensive stage directions set down by Beckett in his plays.

McGovern writes in the programme that his “earnest hope is that those who enjoy the show, and particularly those who don’t, will read the book”. His performance proves that it is sometimes worth a fifty-five minute immersion in writing that does not immediately ‘make sense’, and his commitment assuages the nagging fear that Beckett’s creation could be an elaborate literary hoax.

Matthew Harrison is an English teacher at Coláiste Iognáid, Galway and a contributor to arts programmes on RTÉ.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Watt by Samuel Beckett, adapted for stage by Barry McGovern

23 - 28 July, 2012

Produced by the Gate Theatre
In Bank of Ireland Theatre, NUI Galway

Directed by Tom Creed

Costume Design: Joan O’Clery

Lighting Design: James McConnell

Sound Design: Denis Clohessy

Music: Barry McGovern after Samuel Beckett

Performed by Barry McGovern

Presented as part of the 2012 Galway Arts Festival.