Watt Barbican Theatre

“What are you going to see tonight?” my friend asked.
Watt.” I said.
“What? I was asking, what are you going to see tonight?” she said.
Watt. The play is called Watt.”

Before I’d even left the house for the play, my everyday dialogue had become absurd. Inevitably, the character of Watt encounters a similar dialogue, and I could help but smile and think that Beckett can start to get inside your head before he’s even begun.

One of the leading producers of Beckett, the Gate Theatre Dublin, has produced Watt, a selection of extracts from Samuel Beckett’s novel, Watt, chosen by actor Barry McGovern and adapted for the stage. Watt tells the story of a man arriving at the elusive Mr. Knott’s house on the train, working for him, having a love affair and leaving Mr. Knott’s house. That’s all there is to it, but of course the devil is in the detail.

Watt is a more accessible Beckett production for audience members who might be unfamiliar with him. Arguably, Watt has more of a clear direction concerning plot (for want of a better word) than his other plays, which can baffle with their intensely circular nature. That isn’t to say Watt is lacking this quality, but that it is cleverly edited to focus on particular passages and maximise Beckett’s ironic humour.

I often find one-man-shows to be less hit and more miss – to be blunt, they can be self-serving. This isn’t the case with Watt; McGovern  has carefully put together a show for an audience. You might expect it to sound more like a story told aloud than a play, but director Tom Creed’s production would most definitely be defined as theatrical. There isn’t much you can do to make Beckett refreshing, creating new work by adapting from his novels is a little bit different, but it primarily falls to the director to add layers to the wealth of substance which is already present in Beckett’s writing. The space is sparse; lighting designer James McConnell spotlights McGovern in the main so there’s more enveloping black box than light on stage, and the movement across the stage is precise and static. McGovern’s hat and coat sit on a coat stand like a silent character, perhaps Mr Knott about whom we seem to know everything and nothing, who neither comes nor goes. McGovern closes the production putting his coat and hat back on and, sinking into himself, he eerily seems to disappear and become a hat stand. It’s a remarkably effective moment.

McGovern himself is of the high standard you’d expect for somebody as au fait with Beckett as he is. A one-man-show demands presence, and thank God he doesn’t overplay the part to fill the stage but delivers an intelligent and humourous performance which invites the audience’s attention rather than demanding it. If anything, his style is understated, with just enough physical prompts to illustrate the story that are measured just right.

Watt is a sophisticated piece of theatre and everything you’d expect from Beckett. I cannot fault the production of Watt, but the black and white telling requires attention from the audience and I can’t deny that it’s easy for the mind to wander. It offers something new for die-hard fans, and is accessible to newcomers, but in between, Watt is an example of brave storytelling that I can’t help but feel has been told too many times before and wants something more. Creed is brave in my opinion, but will be bordering dangerously on bland for others.

Watt is playing at the Barbican until the 16 March. For more information and tickets, see the Barbican website.