Waiting for Godot
West Yorkshire Playhouse and Talawa Theatre Company
West Yorkshire Playhouse and touring
Ian Brown's final production as Artistic Director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse is a new but faithful take on Beckett's masterpiece. The collaboration also marks the 25th anniversary of "Britain's foremost black-led theatre company", Talawa Theatre, and the final production with that company of its outgoing Artistic Director, Pat Cumper. As such, the choice of play has a fitting sense of both valediction and event—this is the first ever performance of the play in Britain in which all roles are played by black actors.
The actors were encouraged, in Brown's words, "to speak in their own accents, not necessarily RP", and so the rhythms of Beckett's central characters, played by Patrick Robinson and Jeffery Kissoon, are infused with a West Indian accent. And in those upbeat moments in which Vladimir and Estragon get carried away with their word-play, Robinson and Kissoon slip together into gentle calypso steps. But the production does not concern itself with overt commentary on race relations in Britain or attempting to impose a message about immigration. Rather, Didi and Gogo are those universal sad clowns of Beckett's existentialist meditation.
Robinson and Kissoon make a wonderful pairing. In this production, Kissoon's Vladimir often comes across as the senior partner, worrying over Gogo's forgetfulness—as well as his own—and lovingly ruing his friend's hunger for carrots. Robinson's Estragon is much more the innocent, though one thing this production strikes absolutely right is the constant shifting in the couple's interplay, each needing the other turn and turn about. The elements of music hall often brought to the fore (as in the recent stellar production directed by Sean Mathias) are instead allowed to bubble beneath the surface, hinted at when the pair come to the forestage together and survey the audience while keeping up their rhythmic patter. Their past glories are much more those of Everyman, and the more bittersweet for it.
Cornell S John is a suitably aspirational Pozzo, though I felt his cruelty towards Lucky was somewhat mitigated in this production—the tugs on the lengthy rope around his slave companion's neck somewhat inoffensive, the violence meted out by both Pozzo and, later, Vladimir, stylised and lacking the pain which makes so trenchant the later reversal in Pozzo and Lucky's fortunes. Guy Burgess as Lucky is superbly disturbing, and though the character's monologue is slow to start, this is in order to build to peaks of feeling and expression which match the challenge of the text in a transfixing theatrical moment.
If there is a failing in the treatment of Beckett's enormously demanding text, it is that Robinson and Kissoon occasionally seem to falter, particularly in the later moments of the play, when the sheer mass of words, of ruminations, of mood swings, seems to be taking its toll. The massive demands of the performance are made evident in sweat and shakes—not in itself a failing, but it is to be hoped that the coming performances will see the actors fall into a more confident routine with the text itself, and eliminate these occasional jitters characteristic of early performances of a demanding text still bedding in.
On the whole, though, this is a production full of moments of wit and thought-provoking beauty. Chris Davey's lighting design, as the rest of the production, is faithful to Beckett's instructions while feeling fresh and new. Paul Wills's design aptly conjures a perspective-free landscape on a foreshortened stage suited to the show's forthcoming tour: simple but evocative. Brown and his cast and crew should be commended for a moving, powerful, original but oddly comforting send-off. "Yes, let's go. They do not move."
At West Yorkshire Playhouse until 25 Feb, then The Albany, London (6-10 March), The Old Rep, Birmingham (13-17 March), Winchester Theatre Royal (27-31 March), New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich (3-7 April).
Reviewer: Mark Smith