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The Alligator Superblog

Waiting for Godot

A look at the current production of Beckett's classic at the Theatre Royal Haymarket starring Sir Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart

by Edward Charlton-Jones, 12th May 2009

Can there really be occasion to go and see Sean Mathias’ production of Waiting for Godot? For most, the play infamously described as a piece ‘in which nothing happens, twice’ needs only to be watched just the once, its drawn out pauses and circular dialogue creating an exercise in waiting for the end.

Yet this is a play that has famously reinvented itself in a variety of different settings – apartheid South Africa, San Quentin prison, in New Orleans suffering post-Katrina and as Susan Sontag’s production in war-torn Sarajevo, dubbed ‘waiting for Clinton’. It has also experienced its fair share of controversy. Censored in Britain until the mid-1960s for unconscionable references to erections and prostates, the first year of its production saw the annual Drama Awards invent a new category of prize for it – Most Controversial Play of the Year (never awarded since) – so as not to offend a mutinous West End establishment should it be accorded any greater honour. The play has overcome its critics however: the National Theatre recently conducted a poll in which it was voted as the greatest English-language play of the twentieth century.

Mathias’ production brings its own qualities to Beckett’s work, if only in its assembly of a remarkable cast, with Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen as Vladimir and Estragon, Simon Callow as a larger-than-life Pozzo and the lesser-known but effective Ronald Pickup as Lucky. Such an assembly has not been without its critics, and charges of portentousness have been levelled at a cast that can appear too focused on their pundit-enticing reputations than on the work itself (‘we’re making it in the furnace of art’ declared Callow in a Radio4 interview with James Naughtie).

The play’s vaudevillian interpretation can make it seem too glib at times, representing the protagonists’ situation as a comic caricature rather than a poignant existential metaphor; Pozzo’s repeated efforts at sitting down are marked with bizarre cartoon sound effects, for example. Elsewhere the powerful dualogue beginning ‘all the dead voices’ is anticipated by a shrill ‘wind’ sound that simply isn’t needed.

In approaching their roles for Mathias’ production, they even considered swapping roles on a nightly basis

But small irritations are upstaged by the double lead of McKellen and Stewart. There can scarcely be imagined a play that requires a greater rapport between its two principal actors, as Didi and Gogo embark on a series of rapid exchanges firing lines to each other and frequently finishing each other’s thoughts as well. With a script almost entirely free from stage direction (save certain curious gems like ‘Vladimir uses his intelligence’) it is not surprising Stewart calls the play the most difficult thing he’s ever done, describing the entire process as like being locked in an intense ‘jazz improvisation’ that requires total concentration but changes every night.

It would be hard to find a pair better suited to play such characters. McKellen and Stewart have known each other for over thirty years, and have collaborated on a number of high-budget projects such as X-Men. In approaching their roles for Mathias’ production, they even considered swapping roles on a nightly basis and have ended up sharing a dressing-room for much of their national tour and London season. The intuition that such intimacy creates is clearly visible on stage, and transforms Beckett’s work from an intriguing abstraction to a well-known rapport between old friends.

they are tarnished with their diminishing capacities, though enlivened when they confront each other with such half-remembered instances of a shared past

Vladimir and Estragon are deliberately portrayed as fading performers, the jigs and tricks they have worn remains of an earlier routine; the set consciously evoking the burnt-out remains of an old theatre. Mathias is also keying in on the grand tradition that the play has established for itself. It is now over 50 years since the play was first performed in London (about the same time Didi and Gogo have known each other, as we learn at one point) and McKellen has spoken of the charm he found in ‘The idea that we might be coming to some ruined theatrical memory’.

Stewart and McKellen have in fact focused on this theme to bring to the fore an abiding sense of pity on the part of the viewer, marshalling the nostalgia and telling signs of age in their characters to produce an effect that is worlds away from student productions starring 20-somethings. As a sexagenarian and a septuagenarian respectively, they give resonance to moments like Vladimir’s attempt to remember the name of the farmer from Macon – they are tarnished with their diminishing capacities, though enlivened when they confront each other with such half-remembered instances of a shared past. Throughout it all Didi and Gogo clearly revel in the misquotations with which Beckett has the play – the most masterful, from McKellen, a turn to the moon and the line ‘Art thou pale for weariness, of gazing on the likes of us?’

This then, is certainly not a depressing production; Pozzo’s comment that mothers ‘give birth astride of a grave; the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more’ is offset by the genuine companionship of the central double act. The scale of the Haymarket Theatre merely gives these two more space to occupy in a manner that the playwright himself would surely have approved of (seeing ‘Waiting for Godot’ on TV once he was said to have remarked ‘My play wasn’t written for this box. My play was written for small men locked in a big space’).

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