Waiting for Godot
Theatre Royal Haymarket Company
Theatre Royal, Newcastle, and touring
Review by Peter Lathan
Who could have imagined that one would ever sit in a packed 1,300-seater theatre with the audience cheering a Beckett play to the rafters? It helps, of course, that this production has an absolutely stellar cast - McKellen, Stewart, Callow and Pickup - but it is more than that. This is a production of absolute clarity, stripping away the decades of mystique and, let's face it, often obfuscation that have hidden this often very funny play from our sight.
Irish critic Vivian Mercier famously described Waiting for Godot as "a play in which nothing happens, twice", but of course that's the sort of bon mot which critics like to come up with and, taken out of context, can be very misleading. There is no plot in the accepted sense of the word, but this "tragicomedy in two acts" has everything else a play needs, not least two brilliant characters in Estragon (McKellen) and Vladimir (Stewart). What happens is simple: they are waiting for Godot, whom they don't know and wouldn't recognise if they met him, who doesn't turn up. They meet Pozzo and his slave Lucky and a boy comes to tell them that Godot won't be coming today but will definitely come tomorrow. Twice! (And, we can assume, on and on, day after day.)
All kinds of interpretations have been out onto the play - psychological, existential, political and goodness knows what else (and, indeed, Beckett himself once said he didn't understand it) - but, frankly, from an audience point of view, it doesn't matter. What does matter is the tedium of waiting, the attempts to fill the time and the relationships between the characters, particularly Estragon and Vladimir.
This is where this production scores so highly: the almost marriage-like bickering and making up, the games, the endless repetition of trivial incidents are supported by a real sense that these two men have been together for fifty years. One cannot help but feel that this is a real ensemble production and that the cast, director Sean Mathias and designer Stephen Brimson Lewis, together with lighting designer Paul Pyant and sound designer Paul Groothuis, have collaborated very closely, for all the elements which they represent illuminate the vexed question of Estragon and Vladimir's relationship very clearly.
The setting is a ruined theatre. A tree grows through the disintegrating raked stage and there are boxes, stripped of their plush and gilt, downstage on either side. The business with the bowler hats, the songs and brief dance routines have the air of something that is almost second nature. These two are variety artistes who have fallen on hard times. This is even carried on into the curtain call when Estragon and Vladimir do a brief Flanagan and Allen "Underneath the Arches" routine and the curtain call itself is pure variety.
The performances, as you would expect, are impeccable.Unusually for a play (although not so unusual in opera), the performance was punctuated by spontaneous applause at some very impressive moments, most notably the one speech that Lucky has when Ronald Pickup actually elicited some cheers from the audience! This perhaps says a lot about the audience: I suspect that many were there for the names rather than the play - a twenty-something girl next to me squealed with excitement and delight when McKellen made his first entrance - but they will have left (as the girl did) having been moved and amused in equal measure by what is the very best performance of Godot that I, at any rate, have ever seen.