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Waiting For Godot

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh
4 stars
More than half a century on from the defining theatrical statement of the European avant-garde’s premiere, and Samuel Beckett’s masterful piece of existential vaudeville is being played by British theatrical royalty on a commercial tour prior to a west end run. Beckett himself would no doubt have a sly old chuckle at such a move, but given the approach taken in Sean Mathias’ Theatre Royal, Haymarket production, this is an all too neat sleight of hand. As are the impressionistic Satie-esque piano sketches that usher in the production by referencing a symbol of pioneering artistic expression as essential as Godot itself.

Here, the play is set, not at the side of a road as originally indicated, but in the bombed-out ruins of a once grand civic emporium which may be collateral damage of a war zone, or else left to rack and ruin after the recession closed it down. Only the tree that’s forced its way through the floorboards of Stephen Brimson Lewis’ set offers any fresh sign of renewal.

With this in mind, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen play Vladimir and Estragon as a couple of clapped-out old hams whose entire life has been one long series of routines. McKellen’s Estragon is a laconic, Eeyoreish figure who wears his hangdog expression like a trophy. As Vladimir, Stewart moves from self-conscious chipperness to exasperation, intolerant prostate and all. The two men’s’ exchanges, accented in flat kitchen-sink northern English, are delivered with a matter-of-fact precision that favours deadpan comic timing over ennui.

So when in Act Two McKellen asks Stewart “What do we do now that we’re happy?” the truthful pathos of such a bittersweet inquiry comes from its ridiculousness. Similarly, when they explain to Pozzo that they are “not from these parts,” one thinks of economic migrants waiting for some un-named Mr Big to co-opt them into some nefarious activity or other.

Perhaps such subtle hints of an interpretation are too prosaic for a play so steeped in spiritual possibilities of faith, hope and charity, and if they’re there at all they’re never laboured. Woe betide any company that imposes a lazily thought through ideology on Beckett.

The two lead performances are worth the admission price alone, with every prat-fall or Laurel and Hardy style scratch of the head accompanied by some carefully placed slapstick noises off the way a real life music hall turn or a Tom and Jerry cartoon would be. The tenderly funny portrait of co-dependence that emerges from this quietly revels in the play’s own self-conscious theatricality. This again points up the cleverness as well as the canniness of such starry casting of two men who’ve trodden similar boards for most of their lives.

Only when Simon Callow and Ronald Pickup come on as master and servant Pozzo and Lucky do McKellan and Stewart’s bill-topping double act take a willing back seat, allowing Callow’s bumptious cartoon grandee to bluster away, while Lucky’s dance here resembles moves from David Brent’s repertoire. His free-associative babble, meanwhile, is accompanied by the audible tumult of Paul Groothuis’ sound design, so it really does seem like his head may explode, thinking hat and all. For once, Callow’s particular brand of stand-alone largesse feels appropriate, contrasting deliciously with Pickup’s put-upon asceticism.

Pozzo and Lucky’s second act appearance, with one man blind, the other dumb, both broken but carrying on regardless, looks not unlike capitalism’s own messy fall from grace. As they go on their not so merry way, crashing into some unseen detritus as they go, it feels like it is only their constant transience that saves them from themselves. Here, at least, though, it is Vladimir and Estragon, steadfast and faithful to each other as much as anything else who survive. McKellan and Stewart may step out of character for the elaborately choreographed and all too knowing soft-shoe shuffle of the curtain call, a mini production in itself, but in their hands, silent movie bowler hats and tackety boots, it looks every inch a celebration of life itself.

The Herald, April 15th 2009

ends

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