David Benedict on theatre

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"Hello darkness, my old friend..." Audiences are used to being in the dark. I speak literally, of course. Tom Morris recently took advantage of this when he staged the radio play All That Fall by plunging the auditorium into darkness, forcing the audience to focus exclusively on Beckett's words and, as hitherto disregarded literary critics Simon and Garfunkel put it, "the sound of silence".

Should you be one of the crustier keepers of Beckett's flame - think the bankers in Mary Poppins - you will take exception to my tone of, dare I say it, levity. To have the temerity to place the greatest dramatist of the 20th century in syntactic proximity to a pair of folk singers, well, it's enough to get me banned. You will recall that when Deborah Warner chose to alter a stage direction in her production of Footfalls, the estate grumbled, fumed, expostulated and finally closed the production, denying permission for the Paris dates or the BBC recording. More fool them.

The austerity of Beckett's stringent staging requirements leads people to believe that the man was living proof of the importance of being earnest, as if the plays came with a No Laughs guarantee. Not so. Spry, crisp and dry his humour may have been, but any halfway decent production of Play, a mesmerising, breathless interrogation of a man, his wife and his mistress trapped in purgatory and endlessly repeating their adulterous shenanigans should produce laughter, while Waiting for Godot was a tremedous hit with Max Wall. Let's face it, the man wrote a film starring Buster Keaton.

The secret of Beckett, as Morris realised, is to stop asking "What's it all about?" and simply let the theatrical imagery flow over you. Ask the questions you normally ask of "realistic" plays and you're lost.

Beckett's `Endgame' previews at the Donmar Warehouse, London, from Thur. `Waiting for Godot' is at Contact Theatre Manchester from 16 Apr

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