Bill Irwin performs a bit of Lucky’s speech from Waiting for Godot. (Photo: Kevin Berne)
Bill Irwin, trained as a clown, is America’s foremost interpreter of Samuel Beckett’s works, despite having performed in only three of them. On Broadway, in Waiting for Godot, he’s portrayed both Lucky (alongside Steve Martin, Robin Williams, and F. Murray Abraham) and Vladimir (opposite Nathan Lane as Estragon and with John Glover and John Goodman), and at ACT he’s performed in Endgame and a dramatization of several of Beckett’s Texts for Nothing. I was able to see both Texts for Nothing and the more recent production of Godot, and they were revelations. Irwin uses his clowning techniques to portray Beckett’s confused, ill-at-ease, physically uncomfortable, restless, never-at-home-in-this-or-any-other-realm everymen with humor, wisdom, and compassion.
He is now at ACT’s Strand Theatre in On Beckett, a short evening that’s part performance, part lecture, and part discussion. It’s a master class in the fullest sense of that term. Irwin humbly tells us that he’s not a scholar and that there’s more that he doesn’t know about Beckett than what he does. He sheepishly confesses to having never been able to get through any of Beckett’s novels, despite having found passages in them that left him amazed and overwhelmed. But he speaks with passion and eloquence about what Beckett’s work means to him as an actor, taking us through the some of the struggles he’s had with the various texts, and sharing the virtues and joys of that process to us in the audience.
It’s a wonderful evening of theatrical enlightenment. Irwin is smart and knowledgeable and conveys his experiences with enthusiasm and insight. You see an actor at the height of his powers, wrestling with one of the most difficult playwrights of the 20th century, but you also see a great teacher. Irwin isn’t lecturing, he’s explaining why this material excites him, why it energizes him as an actor, and why it’s more important and relevant than ever.
He describes the penultimate scene of Godot and how he sees two great choices in Didi’s line to the boy emissary of the never-seen Godot: “Tell him… tell him you saw me and that…that you saw me.” Is Vladimir asking the boy to tell Godot that he exists, that there is a man called Vladimir who is waiting for him? Or is he betraying the sleeping Estragon, asserting his own existence over that of his companion’s?
Irwin discusses Beckett’s carefully (and infamously) proscribed stage directions, as well as the necessary wardrobe. There’s a wonderful examination of the bowler hat, with Irwin deftly demonstrating how the size and angle of it can drastically change how a character comes across, and a demonstration of baggy-pants clowning, drawing the parallels between Irwin’s performing experience and Beckett’s own love of vaudeville and music hall.
Watching Irwin is like being at one of Stella Adler’s great lectures on performing Ibsen, or the scenes from the wonderful Canadian television series Slings and Arrows, where Paul Gross as the artistic director of a Shakespeare company explicates some bit of iambic pentameter and makes it come alive with dramatic possibilities. On Beckett is a portrait of an actor at work, and it makes for a thrilling evening
In the post-show discussion, which is an optional part of every performance, Irwin entertained some smart questions from the audience. Asked about the decision as Vladimir to reach for Estragon’s hand at the end of his most recent Godot, Irwin explained that it had been a difficult tech process, with Lane at one point leaving the stage and announcing he’d be back when everyone had learned their lines. (“Since I was the only other person on the stage, it was clear who he was talking about,” Irwin admitted.) A some later point, the handholding happened organically, and neither the director nor the notoriously protective Beckett estate objected. He talked about another moment when he played Lucky: In Act II, F. Murray Abraham as Pozzo accidentally dropped the rope that tethers Lucky to him. Because at this point in the play Pozzo is blind, Abraham couldn’t very well bend down and pick it up. So Irwin’s Lucky picked up the rope and handed it to Pozzo, effectively re-enslaving himself. Director Mike Nichols shouted “I love it!” and it was kept in.
Irwin was visibly thrilled when another member of the audience mentioned that she had seen the original 1953 Parisian production of Godot. She then asked Irwin if we would ever see him perform Krapp’s Last Tape, and a familiar voice shouted “Yes!” from the audience: ACT artistic director Carey Perloff. Irwin said he assumed he would someday but as of yet, it wasn’t a text he felt he understood well enough to do it justice. Here’s hoping that time comes soon.
On Beckett runs through January 22 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater at 1127 Market Street, San Francisco.