Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Simon Callow, Ronald Pickup
Following a sell-out two-month national tour, this much-vaunted production of Samuel Beckett’s masterpiece finally hits the West End.
With its two heavyweight stars, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, giving such entertaining performances in Sean Mathias’s vaudevillian production, you are unlikely to see a more accessible or engaging staging of this notoriously difficult play.
This may be especially good news for fans of Lord of the Rings, Star Trek and The X-Men, but some of the starkness of Beckett’s existentialist vision of the meaninglessness of life has been lost.
This version of Waiting for Godot, subtitled a ‘tragicomedy’ by the author, emphasizes the comedy too much at the expense of the tragedy, though it still offers some inspired insights into the human condition.
Stephen Brimson Lewis’s eye-catching set design sets the tone with its crumbling walls and rubble-strewn stage evoking a decaying civilization, while a torn curtain, splintered proscenium arch and dilapidated theatre boxes on both sides support the idea of Estragon and Vladimir being veteran performers turned tramps, hanging around interminably for something to turn up.
Of course, the influence of music hall and silent comedy on Beckett is well known, as is his admiration of Chaplin and Keaton (who starred in his short silent movie Film), and Mathias’s interpretation has taken its cue from the many theatrical references in the play. The banter between Gogo and Didi is that of a northern double act, while there are many slapstick moments, including a bowler-hat-swapping routine that is straight out of Laurel and Hardy. The funny stuff is all done with great panache and immaculate timing.
The trouble is there is just too much comic business for Beckett’s bleak outlook on life, so that although there is certainly a sense of melancholy behind the humour, overall it feels a bit too cosy, with little sign of despair. After a couple of ‘turns’ by the performers, the audience bursts into applause, and McKellen and Stewart exit doing a Flanagan and Allen Underneath the Arches dance, so that the show sometimes seems more like John Osborne’s The Entertainer than Godot. Are they simply waiting for the Great Impresario in the Sky? And the comic sound effects should definitely be ditched.
Where the production really scores is in the way it shows how Gogo and Didi’s constant patter and games, the repetitive routines, are a conscious attempt to pass time ‘which would have passed anyway’ in order to avoid admitting to themselves that nothing is ever going to happen. In their rather laboured joking and bickering, there is a real sense that the pair have been together for many decades, no doubt helped by the fact that McKellen and Stewart’s own acting partnership goes back to the RSC in the seventies.
McKellen makes more impact here, with his watery-blue eyes, shabby white beard and blistered feet giving him a long-suffering appearance, backed up by slow, weary movement and a doleful, resigned voice. His Gogo is very much the pessimist, perhaps showing early signs of Alzheimer’s, while despite a bladder problem exacerbated by laughing, Stewart’s Didi is more sprightly and alert, encouraging his friend by accentuating the positive in an almost carer’s role. However, Gogo’s occasional suggestions that they part throw Didi into a panic of possible loneliness, so that there is a very moving feeling that the two are mutually dependent.
This symbiotic relationship is superbly mirrored by Simon Callow, as a larger-than-life ringmaster-style Pozzo, ruddy-faced and gaudily dressed, who goes from barking out orders to begging for help after he becomes blind, and Ronald Pickup’s ironically named Lucky, his silent slave who suddenly erupts in one burst of incoherent speech which makes sense in phrases but has no overall meaning like Beckett’s absurdist world you might say.