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Waiting For Godot

Samuel Beckett
Arcola Theatre

Tom Stourton and Tom Palmer in Waiting For Godot

"Nothing happens. Nobody comes. Nobody goes. It's awful." The most famous play of the 20th century has been famously described as a play in which nothing happens twice. The dialogue must be murder to learn. If the actors aren’t concentrating they can easily find themselves in act 2 whilst they are still playing act 1.

Ralph Richardson and Alec Guinness had been offered the roles but, on John Gielgud’s advice, had turned them down.

It was 24-year-old Peter Hall, who directed the English première in 1955, who saw Vladimir and Estragon as tramps, and tramps they have remained ever since. Paul Daneman was Vladimir. Peter Woodthorpe was Estragon. Peter Bull was Pozzo. Timothy Bateson was Lucky.

Audiences used to storm out of the theatre screaming abuse at the actors: “Rubbish”, “It’s a disgrace”, “Take it off”, “Disgusting”, “Balls!!”.

“Why people have to complicate a thing so simple I can’t make out,” said Beckett. Ten years later, a play, which was thought to be totally inaccessible, was totally accessible, even to children.

Richardson always regretted he had never played it. The nearest he and Gielgud came to Beckett was when they appeared in David Storey’s Home at the Royal Court.

Waiting for Godot has been able to support any number of interpretations ranging from the utterly pretentious to the utterly shallow. Vladimir and Estragon have been played by Nicol Williamson and Alfred Lynch (one of the best) John Kani and Winston Ntshona (no-political agenda) and Trevor Peacock and Max Wall.

Alec McCowen and John Alderton were so lightweight there was nothing there. Ben Kingsley and Alan Howard adopted Irish accents. Greg Hicks was an outstanding Lucky. Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in their curtain call did a Flanagan and Allen act and sang “Underneath the Arches.”

The bleakest production I ever saw was directed by Beckett himself in German. When Horst Bollmann and Stefan Wigger complained during rehearsal that it was all getting too slow and boring, Beckett’s response was merely to ask them to go even slower.

The funniest production I ever saw was by Brian Bedford at the Stratford Festival in Canada when Tom McCamus and Stephen Ouimette performed the whole play as an extended vaudeville act. The cross-talk, the role-play, the games, the abuse and the jokes were all acted out in spotlights to the accompaniment of drum rolls.

It is not unusual for comedians to appear in Beckett. Buster Keaton did. Laurel and Hardy should have, perfect casting. Imagine the Marx Brothers: Groucho as Vladmimir, Chico as Estragon, Harpo as Lucky and Margaret Dumont as Godot!

Max Wall in Krapp’s Last Tape and Lee Evans in End Game had a big success. But there are problems with Simon Dormandy casting Totally Tom (aka Tom Stourton and Tom Palmer) in Waiting for Godot. Firstly, the play doesn’t make sense when Gogo and Didi are played in their mid-twenties. Secondly, the comedy duo (who are making their straight debut) aren’t actors and can’t do the seriousness and the poignancy. Thirdly, except for a comic “putting on a boot” routine, they are rarely funny enough.

The high spot, as usual, is Lucky’s long, rambling, incoherent oration. Michael Roberts is Lucky. Jonathan Oliver plays Pozzo as a demented ringmaster cracking a whip. Adam Charteris as the Boy is not the usual young innocent; and with a foreign accent he has become much more knowing and menacing.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch