Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne
October 6, 2018

Nothing or rather ‘no thing’ is at the heart of Samuel Beckett’s novella Watt, adapted for the stage by Barry McGovern. “For the only way one can speak of nothing is to speak of it as though it were something, just as the only way one can speak of God is to speak of him as though he were a man, which to be sure he was, in a sense, for a time, and as the only way one can speak of man, even our anthropologists have realised that, is to speak of him as though he were a termite.”

So begins McGovern’s delightful performance of Watt, first presented in Australia at the 2013 Perth Festival and now staged as part of this year’s Melbourne International Arts Festival. The Irish actor, who has been performing Beckett on stage since the 1980s, is one of the definitive interpreters of his work, so who better to present the strange yet intriguing, tragic-comic piece?

Barry McGovern in Watt. Photograph © Pia Johnson

Beckett wrote most of Watt while in the French countryside, having had to flee Paris to escape the Gestapo because of his work with the French Resistance. He completed it in 1945, but it wasn’t published until 1953. In his program note, McGovern describes his 50-minute adaptation as “a distillation of the essence of the book”.

Centring on a tramp-like figure, who doesn’t quite seem to fit in with the world, Watt points towards Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, first performed in 1953. Watt arrives in an Irish village to work as a servant at a large house for the mysterious Mr Knott. While there he meets with characters including the gardener Mr Graves, a pair of piano tuners and the fishwoman Mrs Gorman, with whom he has an odd romance. Beyond that not much else happens, and then he leaves.

Beckett called the book “a game, a means of staying sane” and it does have the feel of a strange, elusive joke with its glorious use of deadpan humour and the delicious way it plays with words.

The production is beautifully directed by Tom Creed on a simple set by Sinéad McKenna which has a skylight allowing for some mysterious lighting (also by McKenna), as well as a chair and a hat stand. Speaking with a seductive Irish lilt, McGovern gives a consummate performance, bringing a droll gravitas to the character, who has you gently laughing at his gloriously expressed observations. He has also written the evocative music.

Posing questions about existence and the power of language, Watt is a beguiling piece. “My earnest hope is that those who enjoy the show, and particularly those who don’t will read the book. It is unlike anything else you will have read,” says McGovern in the program. If anyone can achieve that, it is him.

Watt runs until October 13 at the Melbourne International Arts Festival


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