Director calls Beckett heir an 'enemy of art' after Godot censure

An acclaimed theatre director in Sydney has criticised Samuel Beckett's nephew and literary executor, calling him an "enemy of art" after he threatened to close down a production of Waiting for Godot.

Edward Beckett, executor of the playwright's estate, walked out of the Belvoir St Theatre as the actors were taking their bows after opening night on Sunday. Mr Beckett had been enraged by the decision of Neil Armfield, the director, to accompany the play with music, mainly percussion.

The production was staged to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the premiere of Waiting for Godot in Paris, but Mr Beckett refused to go backstage to be photographed with the cast. He summoned Mr Armfield to demand an explanation of the music and threatened the theatre group, Company B, with an injunction unless it was removed.

The estate of the late Irish Nobel laureate is infamous for its policing – enforced by contract – of the playwright's detailed stage directions. In 1994, it closed down Footfalls at London's Garrick Theatre and banned the director, Deborah Warner, from staging another Beckett play.

Waiting for Godot – staged as part of the annual Sydney Festival – has been saved from a similar fate after Mr Beckett conceded after two days of talks that the terms of Company B's contract had not, after all, been breached.

But Mr Armfield, an internationally renowned theatre and opera director, is furious. In a speech on Beckett's work to an international symposium at the Wharf Theatre in Sydney, he warned the estate that it risked killing off the plays.

"We have done our best... with respect and love for this great, difficult and unruly classic," he said. "In coming here with its narrow prescriptions, its dead, controlling hand, its list of 'not alloweds', the Beckett estate seems to me to be the enemy of art.

"If there is something to hope for at this watershed 50th anniversary, it is that Edward gives his uncle's work back to artists to work with it. Because if he doesn't, he's consigning it to a slow death by a thousand hacks. The most interesting directors are not interested in dealing with works where their hands are tied."

Mr Beckett, appointed executor in 2001, demanded a pledge from Mr Armfield to excise all the music. He told him: "I can't go and meet the cast. I can't do anything until you promise to correct the production." Mr Armfield said: "He said his agents would be instructed to use legal means to stop the show and that it would be very bad for my theatre. I was flabbergasted. To the Beckett estate, I say, 'What are you afraid of? That the plots are not strong enough to survive interpretation?'"

The director added that, given Mr Beckett's protectiveness towards the plays, he was surprised that he had not taken the trouble to watch the production of Waiting for Godot until the opening night.

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