The Theatreguide.London Review
Note: For the 2010 run, Roger Rees replaced Patrick Stewart and Matthew Kelly replaced Simon Callow
Given the occasion, I can argue that Samuel Beckett's play is the single greatest work of literature of the Twentieth Century. Like all masterpieces, it is multitextured enough that no single performance or interpretation can capture all its layers equally.
So, if I mutter under my breath that some of my favourite aspects of the play aren't fully brought out in Sean Mathias's production, I also have to praise it loudly for capturing others more richly than I have ever seen them before.
Do we need a synopsis? Two men meet daily at a deserted spot to wait for someone they hope will employ or benefit them in some way. He never shows up, but Beckett lets us see something that they themselves don't fully realise - that they generate out of themselves and their friendship almost everything they could hope to get from him.
It's that last element - that Vladimir and Estragon manage to create something of meaning and value out of nothing - that I have seen other productions underline more clearly and inspiringly. Mathias and his actors choose to play that down so that, for example, some of Patrick Stewart's most philosophical moments as Didi are rushed through as if they were meaningless.
(On the other hand, Ronald Pickup is the first actor I've ever seen to play Lucky's attempt at thinking out loud as more than mere gibberish, but rather as the attempt to work out a thought that begins 'Given the existence of God,' and then frighteningly discovers that nothing can be built on that premise.)
What director Mathias, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen as Gogo do capture beautifully is the love between the two men, and the lifetime of togetherness behind their relationship. The two actors convey real warmth in every line, with even their occasional quarrels sounding like the ritualised bickering of an old married couple.
When Stewart's Didi sings his little song at the beginning of Act Two, it isn't a panicked attempt to keep out the silence, but a moment of almost-lost memory that takes him back to a happier time (He even goes into a little dance) and thus tells us these characters do have a past. When the officious Pozzo appears, the two can't resist mimicking him behind his back, in shared mime that tells us how in sync they are.
There is no doubt that Beckett wanted this play to find a way toward hope in the face of nihilism, and a demonstration of the persistence of love is a big part of that message.
Aside from that, the production offers the delight of watching four veteran performers at the peak of their powers. Though McKellen's half-hearted stab at an accent comes and goes, and Stewart sometimes seems to be channelling John Gielgud's voice (and, more disconcertingly, Robin Williams' beatific smile), they still both offer a masterclass in quiet, subtle acting from start to finish.
If he had not given many other superb performances in his life, one would be tempted to say that Simon Callow was born to play Pozzo. Certainly this actor who operates best in broad strokes finds all the grotesquerie and all the ruined humanity in the character.
And Ronald Pickup, if that brilliant reading of Lucky's big speech weren't enough, also slyly lets us glimpse hints of rebelliousness in this subservient figure, with just the occasional hesitation or flash of the eyes.
There is no such thing as a perfect production of King Lear, or Hamlet, or Beethoven's Ninth - or of Waiting For Godot. But this is surely as good as it gets.
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Review - Waiting for Godot - Haymarket 2009