How, Watt and why of Beckett: Barry McGovern wants people to enjoy the works of the great writer

Barry McGovern tells Marjorie Brennan that people should forget the fuss around weighty interpretations of the great writer’s work and just enjoy it instead

How, Watt and why of Beckett: Barry McGovern wants people to enjoy the works of the great writer
Barry McGovern brings his adaptation of Watt by Samuel Beckett to the Everyman in Cork next week.

BARRY McGovern is attempting to explain the plot of Samuel Beckett’s novel Watt, as much as there is any.

“It is a strange novel about a man [Watt] who goes to a house and becomes a servant. There is a servant on both floors, the ground floor and the first floor. When somebody comes to the ground floor to take over, the guy on the ground floor moves to the first floor, and the guy who is working on the first floor leaves, so there is a succession of servants. There is also a man, Mr Knott, whom Watt never sees, and this idea that something that was nothing has happened,” says the actor.

So far, so Beckettian. But for McGovern, the key is to just experience it.

“It is philosophical in a way but the main thing is to forget about all of this, and just enjoy it for what it is.”

McGovern’s stage adaptation of Watt was initially performed in 2010 at the Gate Theatre; following sold-out performances at the Project Arts Theatre in Dublin and the Pavilion in Dun Laoghaire last year, McGovern and Cork director Tom Creed are bringing it on the road again, including a performance at the Everyman Theatre this month.

Listening to the Dublin actor’s low and mellifluous tones — not that dissimilar to Beckett’s, in fact — I am reminded of the phrase ‘you could listen to him reading the phone book’. However, while that particular item has become an almost redundant curiosity, Beckett’s work continues to endure; if anything, his world view is relevant now more than ever. McGovern believes that Beckett’s continuing appeal is down to one essential fact.

“He was just a wonderful writer, that’s what it always goes back to. Some people love Beckett, some people hate him but the in-between is getting more and more popular. His plays were revolutionary in their time and they still are,” says McGovern.

The novel Watt was completed during the war, when Beckett and his future wife Suzanne were in Roussillon in south-east France, having fled Paris where the Resistance cell they had been part of was discovered by the Nazis.

“It’s a novel about obsession really. Beckett wrote it to keep his hand in with the writing, to keep himself sane, as he said. It wasn’t published until 1953, but it was written from 1942 to 1945, roughly,” says McGovern.

McGovern has had a long and distinguished career in television, film and theatre, with roles in everything from Braveheart to Game of Thrones. However, he has become particularly associated with the work of Beckett.

“I’ve done a lot of other things as well, of course, not just Beckett but I seem to be known for that,” he says. He previously adapted three of Beckett’s novels — Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnameable — for the solo show I’ll Go On, but Watt held challenges of its own.

“It is in four parts and what I’ve tried to do is to distill the essence of the book. I’ve had to leave out a lot of sections because some of them go on for pages, big long lists, and you have to condense it but also be fair to Beckett’s work. I love the novel, I think it is really funny and great but it is tricky. A lot of people just abandon it, because there’s lots of lists, combinations and permutations in it. But it’s not so much what it means as how it means. It is like music, all Beckett is like music, it really is.”

LIKE MUSIC

McGovern agrees that the fixation with interpreting Beckett can often alienate audiences, meaning people miss out on the wit, wisdom and humour of the writer’s work, and which is especially present in Watt.

“It’s like that old saying about Mozart [piano sonatas] being too easy for kids and too difficult for adults. In a way, Beckett is like that. I remember years ago, with Waiting for Godot, my stepson Barra was only a kid when he saw it and he came up to me and said, ‘What’s the story about everybody finding Waiting for Godot difficult to figure out? I know what it’s about — it’s about two guys waiting for somebody who never turns up.’ You know, out of the mouths of babes…. There is a simplicity but also a complexity that makes it so delicious. You know, it’s like a good meal.”

McGovern urges people who see Beckett as ‘difficult’ to give his work a chance; Watt the show is also an especially good entry point as it is less than an hour long.

“Watt is unusual but I would say to people who would say, ‘Oh God, Beckett, I’m not going to that’, to give it a try because you’re talking about one of the greatest writers not only of the last century but of all time. A Dante, a Shakespeare, a Joyce, a Beckett... they appear only once every hundred years or so. There are other great writers as well, of course and people may love them more, but Beckett is very special.”

McGovern says that the war changed everything for Beckett.

“He saw his friends going off to concentration camps, that is why he got involved in the Resistance. Watt in a way was the novel that changed everything, after that he started to write those wonderful stories in French, and then the novels, Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable and so on — everything began to be pared down and he found his voice.”

MEETING SAM

McGovern met Beckett several times towards the end of his life, experiences he still cherishes.

“It was certainly a great privilege. They say never meet your heroes; well, I wasn’t disappointed. I was nervous, yes, but he would put you completely at your ease. He wasn’t a man for standing on ceremony, he absolutely hated any kind of hero worship. He was completely devoid of any pretence — integrity shone out from him. And he lived very simply, he gave so much away. He had this kind of strange, austere air about him. He was very much of the spirit rather than of the flesh.”

Such humility is a quality also reflected in McGovern — when asked what he thinks about being described as one of the greatest Beckett interpreters in the world, his reticence is palpable.

“Listen, listen, that is certainly not me who says that. People have to sell tickets and sell seats. I mean, there are plenty of people who do Beckett— some people do it well, some people do it badly and some people do it in-between. I do it the best I can — I just love the work.”

Watt is at the Everyman Theatre in Cork from Mar 10-12. After the Tuesday performance, Everyman artistic director Julie Kelleher will chair a post-show talk with Barry McGovern and director Tom Creed, in the Everyman bar

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