Waiting for Godot

Samuel Beckett
Theatre Royal, Haymarket

Publicity photo

I did not see the cast with which this production was created so I cannot tell you what difference the new casting has made. Ian McKellen as Estragon and Ronald Pickup as Lucky have been joined by Roger Rees as Vladimir, replacing Patrick Stewart, and Matthew Kelly, now playing Pozzo instead of Simon Callow.

The first cast gained general plaudits but for me this one seems pretty well perfect. Fifty years ago, when Peter Hall gave the play its British premiere at the Arts Theatre with Paul Daneman as Vladimir and Peter Woodthorpe as Estragon, Peter Bull as Pozzo and Timothy Bateson as Lucky much of the audience found it baffling. Those who recognized Beckett's sense of theatre still wondered whether you could call this a play and as for meaning Fifty years of academic argument later we are not so worried about reading a clear message and can instead enjoy the splendid piece of theatre it is when played by a cast as good as this.

I'm not going to waste your time reminding you of the plot or theorizing on what it means. Previous reviewers (including those on BTG) as well as all those academics have done that often enough.

Director Sean Mathias and designer Stephen Brimson Lewis have set this production in the bleak wreck of a blitzed theatre. Beyond the golden glitter of the Haymarket's auditorium another stack of grey ghostly stage boxes flanks each side of the set. The shattered laths of a second pros arch hang down from above, the back wall of the stage has been blown away though another wall survives behind it, there are great gaps in the racked stage and a tree has thrust its way though its whitened boards but overhead skewed battens still retain the tattered remnants of drapes or cloths.. It's a reminder of the theatre as metaphor for life, a suggestion too perhaps that it's a theatre they are coming back to, if not a real one a memory of somewhere they once were. And with all that waiting in their particular limbo, could Godot be a memory of the manager or agent that never actually turns up?

The influence of music hall on Beckett is well known and when he wrote the play Variety, if not exactly flourishing, was still alive. We gets hints of old routines, a snatch of tap, a thespian flourish and some clever business with three bowler hats and, though we never get an actual excerpt from their act, McKellen and Rees give me the strong impression that they really were a variety duo.

Fifty years together they say and I can imagine older Didi (Vladimir) finding young Estragon (Gogo) and teaching him his trade. Now things are the other way round: it's Gogo looking after Didi. Gogo may have a prostate problem and be forgetting names but Didi is much further into dotage: there is a wonderful moment that epitomises his dependence when he clutches Gogo's jacket. Though Beckett was only in his 40s when he wrote this play it shows a remarkable understanding of and compassion for the tribulations of old age.

Matthew Kelly's Pozzo and Ronald Pickup's Lucky are another well matched pair. Is it memory or fifty years of seeing those original production photographs that identifies Pozzo so heavily with Bull's rotundity? Kelly seems to make him even bigger with a bloated make-up and voice that's perfect for the exploiter, then petulant in his anguish when fate frowns on him. It is another performance to add to a year of fine portrayals. Pickup's enigmatic Lucky is now the character most difficult to understand, straight out of a comic silent movie in his mute acquiescence, a strong and enigmatic playing.

Mathias adds an interesting touch to the entrance of the boy (Tom Barker I think on press night, but also played by George Sear or Sam Walton) who comes to tell them Godot isn't coming. A grilled doorway in the back wall fills with light when the boy appears, clambering through a hole in the stage. There is something celestial about it, the child a sort of angelic messenger. Just an opportunist theatrical effect perhaps; or should we read anything into it? This is a production where sound design (Paul Groothuis) and, especially, Paul Pyant's lighting play subtle but important roles in achieving its effects. Everything on stage becomes part of an ensemble creation. It may be what you expect of theatre but how often do you get it as finely achieved as this?

This production doesn't mine the play for laughs but the laughs are there, so is the pathos, they don't have to play. It is not as bleak as people once thought it. Despite the lack of a decent pair of shoes and Didi's almost terminal tiredness and frustration Gogo seems to have a way of keeping life going - though one day perhaps things will get so bad that it is time to throw a rope over that leafless branch - but it's definitely not today. Anyway, as the narrowing light of the spot that represents the moon into whose light they look reminds us, this is theatre not life, it will all happen again tomorrow, and if there's a matinee twice. (Indeed, four times if you believe critic Vivien Mercier's clever but so inaccurate comment that it is 'a play in which nothing happens twice').

Until 3rd April 2010

Henry Layte reviewed this production with its previous cast in Norwich, Peter Lathan reviewed it in Newcastle and Philip Fisher reviewed the transfer to the Theatre Royal, Haymarket

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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