On the surface, Samuel Beckett's strange, complex novel, Watt, doesn't lend itself to stage adaptation; the verbal puns alone seem to require sight as well as sound.
Watt by Samuel Beckett, adapted and performed by Barry McGovern
Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre
On the surface, Samuel Beckett's strange, complex novel, Watt, doesn't lend itself to stage adaptation; the verbal puns alone seem to require sight as well as sound. And yet here is Irish actor Barry McGovern, alone, on stage, with a minimum of props, presenting the essence of this most enigmatic of Beckett's works in passages of dazzling verbal virtuosity and absurdist humour.
"It was a tricky business," says McGovern, who was asked by the Gate Theatre's director Michael Colgan to adapt Watt following the success of McGovern's acclaimed one-man play, I'll Go On, for which the latter drew on three other Beckett novels: Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnameable.
McGovern, one of Ireland's leading stage actors (he's also done film and TV - Braveheart, The Tudors and more) and recognised as a major Beckett interpreter, says part of the process involved meeting up with a friend who was a fan of the novel and just toying with ideas. "(Eventually) she thought it was do-able," he says. "So I had a go. I did many, many drafts and eventually something came together which would be a semi-narrated, semi-played piece."
The result is a funny, sad, surreal, even Kafkaesque dramatic and linguistic tour de force which was a big hit for McGovern and Dublin's Gate Theatre at last year's Edinburgh Festival. But who and what exactly is Watt? Not just Watt but Knott, for whom Watt works?
Beckett wrote Watt (published 1953) in the south of France to keep himself sane as he hid from the Gestapo during World War II. As John J. Mood writes in The Personal System - Samuel Beckett's Watt: "As the horrors of the 20th century were reaching a new high, Beckett was constructing an apparently hyperrational man in the face of an irrational world."
Mood goes on to write that only Beckett's masterpiece, Waiting for Godot (1952), has received more scrutiny.
"Watt goes to Mr Knott's house," McGovern says. "We don't know why or how it all came about and when he leaves at the end it's just as mysterious.
"There are mysterious things in Godot. Pozzo and Lucky arrive and leave just as the servants do in Knott's house. Both are journeys towards some sort of salvation or change, or an effort to find something."
In Watt the novel, Watt the man is one in a long line of servants employed by the mysterious Mr Knott. The story itself is related by Sam, who received it from Watt while they were incarcerated in an asylum. McGovern says it's essentially a novel about obsession.
"It's a circular novel in a sense," he says. "It's about a journey of this guy they call Watt, who has difficulty making any sense of the world. He goes to Mr Knott's house and serves first on the ground floor and then on the top floor. Then he leaves. I wanted to get the circularity of the servants in the house there. It's a kind of cycle of life. And it's about Watt's difficulties facing up to the absurdities of the world as he finds them."
Given the circumstances of Watt's composition, it might be fair to think something of Beckett's own life and predicament at the time can be glimpsed between its pages. But only to a certain degree.
"I think the life is the life and the work is the work," McGovern says. "Obviously, the work is informed by the life. That was the way Beckett's genius came out. He wasn't a composer. He wasn't a sculptor. He wasn't a painter. He was a writer, that's how it came out.
"Though in a way his work is very musical, so you could argue that he was a musician. And I suppose you can think of Watt as a musical work too because a lot of the passages have a great musicality about them, a great rhythm and a great melodic sense."
McGovern, who discovered Beckett at 12 when he saw a BBC production of Waiting for Godot, readily admits his adaptation is not the novel.
"Even to say it's an adaptation is tricky," he says. "Because this is one man's version of the essence of what Watt the written work is. I'm actually hoping to lead people to the written work. If people go and read the novel for themselves after seeing the show I'll be a very happy man because there are great treasures in it.
"It's one of the few works that has made me laugh out loud on public transport. Which is a good sign."