Waiting for Godot
Theatre Royal, Haymarket
This production could almost be regarded as an acting contest, as four superb practitioners show off skills in what could be a showdown for the Olivier Best Actor Award. Indeed, if the judges were feeling lazy, they could probably come here and then take the rest of the year off.
Sean Mathias has obviously put his heart and soul into perfecting the interpretation of this play about nothing, or more specifically the exploration of existence. Each of the quartet of central actors plays to perfection, every move and word, even thought, carefully considered and rehearsed.
They flesh out the characters to a remarkable degree so that each takes on rare humanity and adds meaning to lines that could so easily be impenetrable.
Designer Stephen Brimson Lewis has created a crumbling set within a set, with added collapsing proscenium, Within an industrial wasteland, the two tramps, Sir Ian McKellen as Vladimir and Patrick Stewart as Estragon, make a comic double act that could have started life on the boards in a music hall. This adds fun to the more traditional angst as they await the divinely invisible Godot and try to understand their lives.
The bespectacled Estragon is a studious, shabby would-be intellectual with a bladder problem, while his heavily-bearded friend of 50 years seems burdened by incipient senility, characterised by memory loss. Their cross talk, both sacred and profane, is inspired, as are the moves that seem at the same time heightened and natural.
Their wait for the perpetual absentee of the title is punctuated by the arrival of Sir Simon Callow playing Pozzo, a cruel ringmaster with a dictatorial manner. This is most cruelly directed towards the equine Lucky (Ronald Pickup) obediently servile at the end of a long rope.
The former is recognisable as the kind of pompous aristocrat who confidently believes the world is his possession, while his silent slave comes to inspired life when asked to think. Pickup delivers the legendary stream of consciousness speech at a surprisingly sedate tempo, which changes its impact, on this occasion maddening and then boring the onstage listeners.
The sequence after the interval as the bare tree shows a few meagre green shoots of promise makes the search for meaning even more poignant. This is particularly brought home when Pozzo and Lucky return in muted contrast to their earlier incarnations.
The Awards judges at the end of the year may well struggle to choose between the two main actors and might be tempted to sit on the fence, choosing joint winners.
For this critic, Sir Ian McKellen edges the contest for an extra degree of feeling that might be more to do with the character than the acting but will make his performance, both verbal and physical, live long in the memory. So too will an impeccably cast production that is unlikely to be bettered for some considerable time.
Sean Mathias has a big task ahead as he takes over the role of Artistic Director at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket Company following what must have been a commercially disastrous year. However, he could hardly have started better and the box office must surely be posting House Full signs throughout this run.
Playing until 28 June
Reviewer: Philip Fisher