David Lister: The Week in Arts

Too much laughter drives me to despair
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The Independent Online

It was a spooky experience, seeing the first night in London this week of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot directed by Peter Hall and congratulating the director afterwards. Just over half a century ago one could have seen the first night in London of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, directed by Peter Hall.

Then, Peter Hall was directing the British premiere of the play. Then, he used to go for a Guinness after rehearsals with the playwright. Then, he was shortly to marry a young wife. Actually now, he's also got a young wife, so maybe, as in the play, not a lot really changes.

But seeing Sir Peter's latest production of Beckett's masterpiece this week was not just a spooky experience; it was also, for me, a frustrating one, and for a reason that had little to do with playwright, director or cast. It was because of the audience.

Audiences seldom get reviewed. They tend to be ignored by critics, who have more pressing things to concentrate on. But this one brought home to me how influential they are in theatre; how they can change the effect of a play. This one just kept on laughing. Waiting for Godot is unquestionably funny in parts, and Peter Hall has always been keen to bring out the humour in this existentialist drama. But it is also a bleak examination of the human condition. And I wanted to sense that bleakness, to feel that despair.

How, though, can you feel despair when a few people keep shrieking with laughter? Their whoops of joy, their paroxysms of delight, seem to shout at you that despair is out of order, that you should be having a ball. Whatever the director and actors may wish to convey, it is the audience in this case that determines the effect of the play. Indeed, it's not even the audience; it's just a few members of it seated in the front stalls. Theirs is a strange power.

Of course, laughter is not forbidden in a theatre. It has not been outlawed along with smoking on stage. A show may begin with the sound of a mobile phone ringing loudly to warn audiences to turn theirs off; but we don't also get an amplified guffaw to signal "No laughing". Laughter is legal.

But I'm suspicious of the audience laughter in Waiting for Godot. It's rather like those people who go into hysterics during the porter's speech in Macbeth. They've all heard it, or read it, or studied it dozens of times before, and it's not really that funny anyway. The laughter is a sign of one-upmanship. It says: "I get these jokes, even though they're in Elizabethan English and you have to have read a few footnotes. Besides, I studied it at university. I've worked hard for this chuckle, so here it comes."

I suspect that there was something of academic one-upmanship in the Waiting for Godot laughter. There would have been barely a single member of that first night audience who hadn't seen or read the play before. This was not spontaneous laughter. It was not even laughter brought about by this particular production.

This was academic one-upmanship laughter. It said: "Now this play was for decades believed to be bleak, desolate and depressing. But in recent years there has been a move to bring the comedy in it to the fore. I've done my research, so I'm going to squeal in your ear all night."

And that, madam - if I may for a moment address the lady three seats down from me - is your right. Maybe that power of the audience is one of the joys of theatre.

Or maybe not.

In the eye of the beholder

The recent film version of Pride and Prejudice is being screened on television and its star, Keira Knightley, has given an interview to promote the screening. She reveals that when the director Joe Wright saw her for the part of Elizabeth Bennet, he turned her down immediately, saying: "I think you're too pretty for the part."

He saw her once more, some time later, looked hard at her and muttered: "No, you're not perfect," and cast her. "It was a bit of a backhanded compliment," admits Ms Knightley, but she ended up being nominated for an Oscar.

It would be useful for budding actresses to have a tip from her on how exactly to dress down and make yourself less pretty in order to land one of the best parts in costume drama. Do you scrub all the make-up off, stay out late and get no sleep so that you're bleary eyed; keep an Elizabeth Bennet frown on rather than a Keira Knightley smile while the director's sizing you up? Squint a bit? Spill the real beans, Keira.

* The New Statesman, in an editorial, drew attention to the fact that the National Trust was thinking of renting out Thomas Hardy's cottage in Dorset. It then drew on Hardy's books to warn, with a touch of humour, that potential tenants should take care lest their possessions fall off a cliff, that they should not contact relatives in the area as it would only result in unwanted pregnancies and death, that they should avoid the heath where there are deadly snakes, and so on. After each warning, the name of the relevant Hardy book was laboriously added in joke-destroying brackets.

I wonder whether the New Statesman would have added such parenthetical explanations and references after a joke about politics. I wonder too why journals of the Left always assume that their fellow believers know everything about politics, but have never read a work of literature.

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