“An unsatisfactory book, written in dribs and drabs” – that is how Samuel Beckett described his second novel, written while he was on the run from the Gestapo in southern France during the second world war. Watt is certainly a curiosity: full of wordplay, meandering lists, repetition and questions (“What?” being a favourite pun), it is ambivalent about the existence of any answers.
Barry McGovern, a veteran Irish actor who knew Beckett personally, has woven extracts from this difficult novel into a funny one-man stage play lasting just 50 minutes. We follow the eponymous Watt on his journey to the house of (the equally pun-bearing) Mr Knott, where he is to be a manservant. Watt works downstairs, then upstairs, and after some time he leaves. If it were a film, it would be the kind in which not much happens. That is Watt’s problem – his lack of purpose in Mr Knott’s service drives him to distraction – and Watt’s peculiar delight.
A tall, rangy figure dressed absurdly in a tailcoat, McGovern offers up the humour and poetry in Beckett’s text with a mix of deadpan tones and wonderfully expressive looks. Beckett’s prose glints with the near admission of its own comedy: when a station porter tells Watt to watch where he’s going, Watt “did not cry out on this extravagant suggestion, let fall, it is only fair to say, in the heat of anger.” By Watt’s standards this is pithy. Mostly, Beckett’s narrator circles the point in sentences characterised by their precision and longwindedness.
This will frustrate some, and were Watt to last more than an hour it would undoubtedly grow tiresome. But the narrator’s completist obsession – his inability to omit any detail or qualifying clause – points to the gradual breakdown of Watt’s sense of certainty. Even words begin to shed their meaning. And though we too feel lost at times, it is hard to empathise with a character about whom we know almost nothing. We realise that McGovern’s narrator, stepping in and out of pools of light on the empty stage, has disclosed very little. How much does Watt know about Mr Knott? How much does he care to tell? We are left with the uneasy sense that the joke is, and has been, on us.