Peter Hall’s latest production of Waiting for Godot, which plays at Richmond Theatre this week prior to a West End run, is warm, funny and fast-paced. For people who haven’t enjoyed Beckett before, this magnificent production, the third by the veteran director, might just convert them.
It looked as though this Godot would never turn up. London audiences keen to see Hall’s latest take on Beckett’s masterpiece were almost denied the chance, as a dispute between the director and the rights holders meant that a transfer earlier in the year couldn’t happen and, until the last few days, there has been uncertainty as to whether it will play in the capital.
Peter Hall directed the first Waiting for Godot, a theatrical sensation, at the Arts Theatre in 1955 and then revived it seven years ago at the Old Vic. This latest production originated at the Theatre Royal, Bath last year and a possible London run clashed with the Beckett Festival at the Barbican in April.
Compared with the Gate Theatre’s excellent Godot, which did play at the Barbican, this is lighter and less bleak. While there are plenty of laughs in both, the Irish production, which has been performed over a number of years, is also more ponderous and full of tragic intensity. Hall’s is constantly entertaining and moves like an express train much of the time.
He treated Beckett’s Happy Days (with Felicity Kendal as the buried Winnie) similarly a couple of years ago. That was played at a terrific pace and with little regard to the extensive stage directions. One casualty of that approach was the opportunity for the audience to take stock and savour the wonderful images. Where it gained, however, was in accessibility and Waiting for Godot is equally engaging.
Vladimir and Estragon are beautifully contrasted characterisations. James Laurenson’s Didi is the epitome of shabby gentility while Alan Dobie’s Gogo is surprisingly physical and delicate of gesture, as well as extremely irascible. Terence Rigby is suitably pompous as Pozzo and Richard Dormer gives an extraordinary performance as the hapless Lucky. This is evident long before his enormous scene-stealing speech. Dormer’s Lucky is white-faced, drooling and gasping, looking like some long-dead version of Marcel Marceau. When he does burst into his great philosophical tirade, he is breathtaking in his vocal and physical variety.
Despite the fast tempo much of the time, there is great variation of tone and texture. Hall meticulously observes Beckett’s very musical approach to language and movement and there’s never a sense of rush for the sake of it. The silences are often long and there are regular changes of direction, as Hall brilliantly shapes the architecture of the play.
The setting (by Kevin Rigdon) is simple, with walls and doors denoting a stage within the desolate landscape. This makes sense of the various theatrical references and Estragon’s strange line “End of the corridor, on the left” when Vladimir exits to relieve himself. The atmospheric lighting is by Peter Mumford and the moon-lit scenes are quite beautiful.
Samuel Beckett was born 100 years ago and this has been a good year in London to see a range of his work. We still have Harold Pinter in Krapp’s Last Tape at the Royal Court to come but, as tickets for that are like gold-dust, you can’t go far wrong with this production of Waiting for Godot. I urge you not to wait around wondering what it’s all about – you’re unlikely to see a more experienced director and cast do justice to this wonderful play.
Following this week in the beautiful Richmond Theatre, it will play at the New Ambassadors Theatre from 9 October.