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Waiting for Godot

Play Nation

by Greg Lomas, ilustration by Greg Lomas / 02.09.2010

“Charming spot. Inspiring prospects,” Sir Ian McKellen whispers. He’s perched on the edge of a makeshift stage, glaring into the darkness. Into the gloomy half-light of Oliver Tambo Sports Hall in Khayelitsha. Things are going on. Real things. Not in the play. A plastic chair squawks. An infant squirms. A young girl folds her homework. But the show has begun.

In Waiting for Godot the landscape the two main characters (Gogo and Didi) amble through in the opening scene is a bog, an unforgiving quagmire. If you follow their frequent glares beyond the intent mix of Khayelitsha residents, up and over and beyond the sports hall walls, you’ll find a matching landscape. Barren football pitches, broken fences, one of South Africa’s poorest informal settlements. We are watching something rare, something resonant.

McKellen’s fame has brought the play into the heart of Khayelitsha. It’s a chance to share theatre with an audience largely unaccustomed to it. What’s amazing is the dialectic between the onstage characters and residents crowded onto the cold scaffolding seats. There’s a continuity here. People facing harshness and making do with very little.

Beckett’s play will go on being staged around the world – it’s a world historical classic – but its punch is fiercely contemporary and chimes especially with local life, with our own struggles and hopes of promise. The search for understanding is not lost on the destitute. This ‘difficult’ play is immediate and vital. Bowler hats or no bowler hats. In South Africa, there is a lot of waiting. Beyond the square labyrinth of the creaking stage are any number of struggling communities working out the limits of existence in trying circumstances.

Waiting for Godot is open to high brow political and religious interpretation – critics have long had an existential field day with it. But Beckett basically nails our fundamental condition: humanity doomed to face the absurdity of existence. Maybe its even tougher an ask for the working class, less able to indulge in the luxury of distraction. Maybe the play is doubly resonant for people actually trapped inside its slow burning nightmare of grinding hunger and utter indifference.

Inside the hall is an audience stuck in a similar purgatory. Looking for some kind of purpose (a job, a future, a hot meal) while waiting for something – solace, meaning. Needing the communal assurance found in churches, in a loose cigarette, in a drink, a lover, a job.

A police siren cuts through the night and mixes with McKellen’s voice:
“Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful.”

Was it “culturally insensitive” to put this play on in Khayelitsha? Imperialistic. I don’t know. Did this canny, devastating play go over everyone’s head? Do you need a matric to get it? Are its themes lost to the night out here?

McKellen makes it work. Opens up the text in a thrillingly popular way. He is subtle and sublime. Laughter and awe often spills back over the stage. Magic and delight. True theater. Outside of Oliver Tambo Sports Hall, having finally escaped the labyrinth of Becketts’ play, I am faced with another labyrinth: the amber glow of Khayelitsha. It dawns on me that the redemptive power of the play and its star performance (Sir Ian McKellen in full flight) made you forget where you were. A momentary escape. Which is what art can do.

*Illustration © Greg Lomas.

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  1. Max says:

    best article i read the whole week. tops

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  2. Anonymous says:

    this is a great article.
    get more like greg round these parts.

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  3. scott m says:


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  4. anon good nurse says:

    I was taken to see Shakespeare and the like, whether on stage or screen, from the age of 10 onwards… before I had a matric, and i certainly before i could make much sense of it. But the magic of such performances and stories transcended those obstacles and made a lasting impression on me.

    I don’t feel that it was culturally insensitive to take Godot to KL. I think to have major expectations about what such an exercise would achieve would be insensitive.

    Greg Lomas, I commend you on an excellent piece of writing. Wonderful to see a piece on here with so little ego attached to it.

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  5. Sandile says:

    I find this article offensive to say the least.

    Another pseudo arts reviewer pondering what’s best for the starving masses and using the most sentimental writing style to do so.

    “Inside the hall is an audience stuck in a similar purgatory. Looking for some kind of purpose (a job, a future, a hot meal) while waiting for something – solace, meaning. Needing the communal assurance found in churches, in a loose cigarette, in a drink, a lover, a job.”

    Well thank you very much Mr Lomas for deciding what us god forsaken, culturally barren,famished folks desire, crave and need.

    I have relatives from the area who would be horrified to hear you call their lives purgatorial or reduce its meaning and purpose to the search of a lose cigarette. Believe it or not they are all employed, can feed themselves and do not turn to religion for communal assurance.

    Perhaps the plush Cape town suburbs –from where you are likely to have written this article– might better suit your purgatorial comparisons and Beckett’s existential themes.

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  6. anon says:

    Well Sandile, I know people from “the area” who do look to the next loose cigarette for some sort of solace, who can’t go to work on the day they are washing their clothes because they only have one outfit and who, on most days, would be the first ones to admit that they are famished. I don’t think Mr Lomas is generalising, and neither should you. Do you know who the audience was in that hall? Or are you assuming they were a balanced cross-section of the community and therefore that YOU know, by default, what they crave and need?

    If you knew the author, you would not read into this article as an opportunity for him to claim the Townships of Cape Town as “culturally barren”. And, had it been the intention of the article, would certainly be able to investigate the idea of existentialism in areas of wealth and plenty. Maybe you should try your hand as a “pseudo art reviewer” and tackle that one?

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  7. Andy says:

    I think Sandile makes some great points. And there are a whole slew of remarks that should have been edited if the aim was to be impartial and objective. This article was written from the perspective of an mlungu wasekapa and there is a fair amount of generalisation, misappropriation and guilt mixed up in that experience and viewpoint. But that’s how many white people experience the lokshin. It becames a tableau upon which to project and confront everything that’s wrong with the country. Poverty,unemployment, crime, blight, misery etc. And as a review it’s true to that experience and reaction. It is a particular kind of space Lomas writes from. He’s sensitive enough to acknowledge his privileged position in our society – and honest enough to try and work his way around that subtle knife, without doing what generations have done by just sweeping it under the carpet.

    Sandile’s comment offers a more real perspective. One born out of experience and familiarity. Whereas Lomas’ is defined by alienation, fear and excitement. Both are valid.

    I’m sure it has opened a lot of eyes on this thread… and caused some uncomfortable mental acrobatics. And that is exactly the kind of debate we want to be having on this site.

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  8. Doctor L. says:

    The above interaction is why I love this site. Some people here think I’m a racist or separatist or whatever, but really, at this point I know white and black South Africans can’t pull apart from each other. I just can’t say that here because the real racists will take it as an offshoot to infer black inferiority, whereas my argument would be more about what’s become a co-dependency between black and white South Africans to co-create our identities. Something that African Americans (who are America, by the way; along with, maybe, Walt Whitman) knew about their oppressors as far back as the 1800’s. One makes the other. Many of our writers have been saying the same thing. But no one reads, them. Peep Kelwyn Sole’s ‘Land Dreaming’ or K. Sello Duiker’s ‘The Quiet Violence of Dreams’.

    Technology and globalization, for better or worse, are kind of making the world look the same and standardizing belief and behaviour across peoples. [ note: I resisted an urge, here, to be ‘flashy’ and write something like “we see the world through the same clear non-prescription wayfarers”, but I guess I wrote it, anyway]. We’re becoming ‘global’, which is a problem for me because while it levels certain cultural clashes, it makes the common bond between all of us consumerism. (I don’t think it’s as imperial as it used to be because we’re actually putting shit out there ourselves; how much of it is really our own is another debate). Long St. in Cape Town looks like Allston in Boston. It’s just that people’s accents are more nasal in the latter, and not as many people wear cut off skinny jeans and wake up to cigarettes and frappe’s in the former.

    What’s the point? Debate. I don’t think Greg should be apologetic for his position or his sensitivities as much as Sandile shouldn’t shirk from his. Shit, bring in the racists too, if they’re actually willing to think and pursue logic with sensitivity.

    And I’m sorry to single people out, but white people are the ones who are mostly like to be oblivious and impermeable. It’s impossible to not know, and be down with, your fair share of white people shit if you’re black and trying to survive in SA. But a majority of white people can have blinkers on, even with the best intentions.

    So. Don’t hate yourself or others. Besides being a little vain, there’s no need for that: contempt is unproductive. Don’t apologize for yourself, either. No one alive is an accident. Open yourself up and sometimes do the most uncomfortable thing. Risk shit, but be honest and compassionate. Don’t be afraid to let go of persisting and pervasive, but destructive narratives: “Not every family is meant to stay together.”

    I’ll stop there. Anyway, this was dope. Peace!

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  9. Roger Young says:

    @Doctor L

    Thank you.

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  10. Fannie Carp says:

    Lekker debate! Am from Elsies, very close to KL, but was to kak scared to venture there, even for a freebie. Ons sukkel maar almal terwyl ons wag!

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  11. Anonymous says:

    Wish I’d been there. Superb.

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  12. Kay says:

    Greg Lomas….Legend!!!! Envy poured out my eyes as a i read that!!!! Doctor L. Nicely said!

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  13. Cristina says:

    Doctor L, may your dope be many’s addiction. I don’t know you, or whether you are what you’re accused of or not. But a) I know how easy in these “political-correctness-gone-mad” times it has become to stick labels without any real reason or valid criteria. And b) what I am reading now makes a lot of sense to me, so there.

    However, I’m sure we, as people and equals, shall be able to find another (bonding) common denominator rather than consumerism. Because in the end, our definers are always dependent of everything and everyone else around us. It is not a question of superiority-inferiority. It’s not a ‘black-white dichotomy’ preserve, though it may seem so much more painful and raw in a country like South Africa, given its still so recent past. And the sooner we understand that the better for all of us. We are all people, period,standing naked and equal before each other. There can be no exceptionalism as there can be no positive discrimination, to the risk of true alienation.

    In any case, anti-racism is, just like racism has always been, a thin and convoluted line to walk. Sometimes, in walking it, we are read for what we aren’t, what could never defend, because in fact it is absolutely indefensible.

    I can see where Sandile is coming from, but I don’t see any ghouls in Lomas’ piece.

    And after all, doesn’t ‘Waiting for Godot’ has this very virtue of making us fight our own windmills…? And doesn’t it require the very setting of waiting to grab the next discarded cigarette butt…?


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  14. T says:

    poetically written by a master of the english absurdidity of middle income mediocrity… letters of our times…

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