Waiting for Godot

Samuel Beckett
The Peter Hall Company
Theatre Royal, Bath

Production photo

Watching a performance of Waiting for Godot should never be effortless. It baffles and confuses and refuses to conform to a definitive interpretation. But done well, the complexities of the text lessen. Done magnificently, as the Peter Hall Company does here, seeking definition seems little more than a distraction. Instead it becomes an emotional process. What Hall achieves with this cast is to allow Beckett to goad us all into gripping life by the balls, shaking us awake and breaking us out of our self-imposed inertia.

During the first rehearsal process of the play, back in 1955, Peter Hall grew to wonder "less and less about what the play meant". There's no shortage of stuff in need of explanation, if that's what makes you tick. But as I sat through this production, I, too, grew to care less about explanation: I was too busy laughing, pitying, fearing and ultimately, crying. It is a play that encapsulates the human condition brilliantly, performed here by a seamless ensemble.

This cast shines in its portrayal of the humanity of these characters: they are, without exception, fully rounded, complete individuals, and their fates haunt you long after you have left the theatre.

The long companionship and genuine affection between Vladimir (James Laurenson) and Estragon (Alan Dobie) is unquestionable. These actors give fleshed-out performances: you believe these two have been together for fifty years. They have a vitality; an unspoken interdependence; a history together. They have come to know each other so well they often move across the stage as one. As Vladimir's unease grows in the second act, Laurenson picks up his companion's shoe, sniffs it and holds it close to his chest, the offensive smell that was yesterday the source of comic repulsion, today a touching anchor to reality: "something to give us the impression we exist". That most basic need in us all to hold on to the presence of those we know and love.

The Anglo-Irish landowner, Pozzo (Terence Rigby), and his wretched 'carrier', the servant, Lucky, (Richard Dormer), dominate whenever they appear. Rigby is a powerhouse of authority, and fills the stage, with his aristocratic self-importance and his blundering preoccupation with trivial social niceties. He cannot allow himself to sit, for example, without first being invited to do so by another.

And yet he thinks nothing of tearing at the flesh of the neck of his servant with a rope.

Lucky is, at first glance, the most wretched creature of all of them. Dormer gives him a weighty, barely human physicality, as he stands alone, panting and slobbering. It is an outstanding performance that draws the eye despite his protracted silence.

And here too, there is a fully-realised history. Pozzo leaps to Lucky's defence as Didi and Gogo pick over him in the first act, ordering them to leave him alone to rest. This clearly comes so close to a statement of compassion for Lucky, that Dormer momentarily freezes: his shuddering and slobbering ceases, his eyes fix ahead of him, his body is held entirely still. Dormer is the master of the under-stated glimpse of what lurks beneath the surface: this is no unfeeling monster but a real man, who thinks and hurts just like any other. He clings to his role as servant as he clings to his bag of sand: desperate for some small recognition of his suffering.

When he finally bursts into his complex speech, it is poorly received by his on-stage companions, dismissed as a thing of nonsense and rejected as the ravings of a lunatic. But the audience's reaction is quite different. In Dormer's hands, the poetry is performed with a lilting, rhythmic and syncopated musicality, and the audience watch open-mouthed.

Again, the text appears to defy explanation, but Dormer's delivery, here in clipped English tones, there in the raw and anguished voice of one from the west coast of Ireland, gives shape and form to the emotional turmoil of his character, and as he collapses on stage you are left winded.

Dormer singles Lucky out as the only one of these men who has felt the pain of someone other than himself. He has lived, and, like the nineteenth century Irish peasantry, he bears the scars. Against this latter-day Irish setting, Dormer's heavy emphasis upon "the skull at Connemara", and Estragon's later references to "all these skeletons", the outrage of the Irish Famine is an unspoken backdrop, and Hall's production points an accusatory finger at the inertia of us all against injustice.

The poetry of Beckett's text, that Hall so loves, is made to sing in the hands of this cast. Vladimir and Estragon spar with each other like jazz musicians: their one-liners creating a syncopated rhythm that lets the comedy sing and grounds their relationship: they complete each other vocally like an old married couple.

At the same time the cast make an art form of the impeccably held pause, that runs as a leitmotif throughout, as with any great piece of music. That bleak void that is their futile life is here eeked out on stage in courageous silences that become as weighty as the poetry itself, so that by the end you don't feel as if you have watched their life, so much as lived it with them.

In Hall's hands, that lack of action that the play is renowned for is cast aside: every moment is filled to capacity and every line delivered with a musicality that lends pace and grace to the comedy and a heart-breaking gravitas to both Lucky's anguished and brilliant outburst, and Vladimir's final, desperate pessimism.

This production is astounding: it is very funny and profoundly moving. In the end, it is theatre with a message for us all. This is one that stays with you.

It runs in Bath until September 9th, then tours to the Oxford Playhouse, from 18th to 23rd September, and to the Richmond Theatre 25th to 30th September before transferring to the West End (venue still to be confirmed).

Philip Fisher reviewed this production on its West End transfer to the New Ambassadors

Reviewer: Allison Vale

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