MF Watt Barry McGovernBefore Irish writer Samuel Beckett produced Waiting for Godot, he wrote the “novel” (to some a loose classification) Watt in bursts from 1941 to 1945. Barry McGovern has distilled the work into a 60-minute one-man show, which he performs.

Entering the stage in dark coat and hat, silver-haired McGovern would proceed to narrate some events from the life of Watt, a somewhat odd, somewhat senior man on his way to domestic service at the country manor of Mr Nott.

We were quickly made aware of Watt’s eccentric nature through McGovern’s depiction of his walk; an indirect gait looking an inefficient use of energy. Over the performance, McGovern would deftly play various characters, and, as Watt seemed disinterested in speech, relate the man’s thoughts.

The writing of Beckett’s Watt began whilst serving with the French Resistance, continuing through his efforts evading the Gestapo through rural France, to a nervous breakdown having reached safety. There might be some temptation to draw upon this in interpreting Watt.

However, Beckett was also influenced by James Joyce. Following that lead, the work seems to scatter puzzles amongst episodes of not-quite mundane events given the odd curious slant. Your own sensitivities may steer a quest for meaning in particular directions.

For me an influential early cue came through the narrator’s words, roughly that we can only talk of God as if he were a man, and man a termite. From here, some following events and descriptions suggested biblical or existential intonations.

McGovern gave an often-understated performance, with Tom Creed’s direction ensuring that our attention was focused on Beckett’s words when most necessary. Through droll delivery or a manic enthusiasm for expounding on sequences of related matters (when fewer would have had more or less the same effect) McGovern massaged humorous moments from simple events or meetings made ridiculous.

Whilst not quite a sacred mystery, there’s still a feeling of something that can be felt but not quite understood here. What drew Watt to serve Nott, and what purpose did this interlude serve? Perhaps incidentally for Watt himself, knowledge he gained towards the end confronted us with that rueful state where a flash of self-awareness brings disaffection.

Set and lighting design by Sinéad Mckenna played an important role, such as in highlighting how Watt was often apart from others. Further, as we – seemingly along with Watt – try to construct meaning along our journey, the lighting of the final scene was particularly evocative. Compressing time yet remaining magically natural, the end of a period and the accompanying uncertainty were marked with an interrobang of contrast to burn itself on the brain.

Whilst there may be some scouring of the grey matter to make sense of aspects of the work, very quickly an audience will find themselves enjoying the performance. Through the house program, McGovern related his hope that audiences will read the book. Based on this memorable outing, many in the audience will feel the urge to know more of Watt. Others should hurry to make his acquaintance in this short season.

Playhouse – Arts Centre Melbourne, 100 St. Kilda Road, Melbourne
Performance: Saturday 6 October 2018 – 7.00pm
Season continues to 13 October 2018
Information and Bookings: www.festival.melbourne

Image: Barry McGovern stars in Watt (supplied)

Review: Jason Whyte