‘Watt’ at the Melbourne International Arts Festival

By Alison Croggon
Beckett’s knotty novel is masterfully interpreted for stage by Barry McGovern

Barry McGovern in Watt. Image by Pia Johnson

Anyone who has read Samuel Beckett’s second novel Watt – which I highly recommend, although it must be one of the most maddening books ever written – will have wondered, as I did, how it could possibly be adapted to theatre. But Barry McGovern’s presence, intelligence and bewitching vocal skills make it look easy.

This is the second Australian iteration of this performance. I first saw it in the 2013 Perth Festival, and festival director Jonathan Holloway has brought it back for Melbourne audiences. This is a slightly dressier version of the show: Sinéad Mckenna’s set hovers a slanted skylight above McGovern, which permits some very beautiful lighting, and I don’t remember the musical interludes in the first, although my memory may be betraying me. But everything focuses on McGovern’s masterly performance.

Watching it this time, Watt seemed like a perfectly rendered glimpse into a past that was being smashed into smithereens when Beckett was writing: not only of an Ireland that was vanishing under the pressures of the 20th century, but of the kinds of linguistic and theatrical experiments that arrived with European modernism. Yet Beckett’s work remains vital in a way that can’t be said of many of his contemporaries, perhaps in part because of its insistent refusals of nostalgia.

The book was written during the Nazi occupation of France when Beckett, who was working for the Resistance, was forced to flee Paris and hide in the country. On the evidence of Watt, he was bored out of his skull. The novel is an extended joke, in which Beckett’s characteristic questions about language, human existence and the nature of reality are enacted through a narrative that can at best be called unstable. Watt and Knott represent a question and its negation, a movement dramatised throughout the text, although, as Beckett waspishly notes in the novel’s last line, “no symbols where none intended”. Which symbols Beckett “intended” are, of course, open to endless speculation.

McGovern has filleted the novel to create a 50-minute monologue that frames the complexities of the book in a structure of crystalline lucidity. The show opens with a statement – “the only way one can speak of nothing is to speak of it as though it were something” – which the performance then elucidates. Watt, the first of Beckett’s many enigmatic tramp figures, arrives in an Irish village to be a manservant for a mysterious figure called Knott. He encounters various characters – other servants, such as the morose gardener Mr Graves, and visitors, such as a father-and-son duo of piano tuners, and he pursues a peculiar romance with Mrs Gorman, the fish-woman. And then he leaves.

Among the things that McGovern wisely left out of his adaptation are two pages of frogs croaking, written like a musical score; paragraphs and sentences that run backwards; and ellipses where the manuscript is allegedly “illegible” or where the author simply inserts a question mark, as if he has run out of ideas. But McGovern’s adaptation doesn’t traduce the knotty complexities of the writing: it simply makes them clear.

Beckett’s sentences are ground out with a pedantic precision that employ a hypnotic repetition. To take an example at random: “The ordinary person eats a meal, then rests from eating for a space, then eats again, then rests again, then eats again, then rests again … [and so on, for several lines] and in this way, now eating, and now resting from eating, he deals with the difficult problem of hunger …” In Watt, Beckett is beginning to hone the vocabulary of internal alienation that he later extended in his trilogy and the plays: language becomes a thick, opaque medium as perplexing as the objects and rituals that it fails to depict or symbolise.

This insistent mundanity induces a rising hilarity, which McGovern fully exploits in his performance. Alone on stage with a chair and a hat stand, and directed with parsimonious tact by Tom Creed, he holds his audience in the palm of his hand.

Beckett’s instinctive ear for the rhythms and sounds of language, later extended in his meticulous stage directions, is acutely rendered in this performance. McGovern seamlessly theatricalises the shifting narrative voice – sometimes he is Watt, sometimes he is Watt looking at himself, sometimes he is a God-like, anonymous third-person narrator.

It’s a performance rich on nuance, every gesture and expression clarifying the sly, mordant comedy and slippery ambiguities of the prose (it’s no accident that Beckett is so fond of puns and music hall jokes). The comedy creeps up from behind, ambushing the audience as Beckett’s outrageous sentences pursue their tunnel-vision distractions. It seems at once too short and exactly the correct length, a modestly radiant show that somehow illuminates the whole of existence. Don’t miss it.


Watt is being staged as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival until October 13.


First published in Witness Performance.

Alison Croggon

Alison Croggon is a Melbourne poet, novelist, librettist and critic. 


Barry McGovern in Watt. Image by Pia Johnson

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