Irish group brings Samuel Beckett plays to Berkeley

by John Angell Grant Daily Planet Theater Critic
Tuesday October 17, 2000

The big event in Bay Area theater this month is the first visit ever to California by Ireland's famous Gate Theater. 

The Gate will perform two plays by Samuel Beckett, Ireland’s Nobel Prize-winning playwright, novelist and poet, for five days only, October 18-22, on the UC Berkeley campus. 

Tickets for one of the plays – “Krapp’s Last Tape” – are already sold out. Tickets are still available for the second play, “Waiting for Godot.” 

Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) in many ways is the most influential playwright of the 20th century. 

The 1953 Paris premiere of his “Waiting for Godot” changed the meanings, sensibilities and structures of modern drama. It had the same magnitude of impact on drama that Picasso had on painting. 

A key creator of the theater of the absurd, Beckett’s stripped down minimalist, existential style influenced many playwrights who followed him, including Harold Pinter, Edward Albee, David Mamet, Sam Shepard, Tom Stoppard. 

Beckett’s plays ask the big questions: “Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? Who am I?” Many of his characters are people facing death. 

Though bleak, the plays are also funny. Against all of their negative experience, Beckett’s characters hope to survive. Beckett himself lived with depression all his life. 

In 1988, two years before Beckett died, Dublin's Gate Theater staged “Waiting for Godot” at the playwright's personal request. The success of that production led to an agreement to produce all 19 of Beckett’s plays at the Gate in a 1991 Beckett Festival. 

That festival then played successfully in New York in 1996 and London in 1999. What Berkeleyans have a chance to see this week is a piece of that festival-two of Beckett’s most famous works. 

“Waiting for Godot,” a quintessential drama of the 20th century and Beckett’s most famous work, is a play about two men who wait for someone who never arrives. 

The current Gate production reunites the original 1991 Dublin company. The cast features Barry McGovern (Vladimir), whose film credits include “Billy Bathgate,” “Braveheart,” and “The General.” 

The role of Estragon is played by Johnny Murphy, best known to American audiences as “The Lips” in Alan Parker’s film “The Commitments.” 

In “Krapp's Last Tape,” an aging man tries unsuccessfully to confront his past on the occasion of his 69th birthday, listening to tape recordings he made earlier in his life. Memory, fantasy and present-day experience interweave, and eventually become indistinguishable in his mind. 

Performing the role of Krapp is celebrated Irish film and stage actor David Kelly, who created the role for its Irish premiere in 1959. In 1998, Kelly achieved international fame for his hilarious starring role in the movie “Waking Ned Devine.” 

Tickets for “Krapp's Last Tape,” unfortunately, are sold out, although the producers say there is some possibility of last minute cancellations. Tickets are still available for selected “Waiting for Godot” performances, Oct. 18 through Oct. 22., Zellerbach Playhouse, UC Berkeley campus, Bancroft Way (at Dana), Berkeley. Call (510) 642-9988 or e-mail tickets@calperfs.berkeley.edu.