Better late than never. Peter Hall’s anniversary Theatre Royal Bath production of Samuel Beckett’s masterpiece – he directed the first production in English at the Arts Theatre in 1955 – was kept out of London last year by the Gate, Dublin, and the Barbican, who jointly held the rights in the capital. As it turned out, the Gate production was a shop-worn, mechanical affair, the least memorable item in the Beckett season.
Justice is done in a two-month season at the New Ambassadors with this pitch-perfect version of a play that now seems almost comforting in its long sigh of nihilism. “How time flies when one has fun” is a phrase you might drop while standing in a bus queue or watching paint dry. When Beckett’s Vladimir utters it, he is gleaning a small crumb of consolation in the enveloping void.
Beckett saw Vladimir and Estragon as a clown-like double act. It was Hall who invented the tramp personae. The clown tramp now seems the definitive line of interpretation, although various Vladimirs in my experience – Nicol Williamson, Alan Howard, Max Wall – have transcended the image with a degree of battered seediness, suggesting a displaced grandee or, in Howard’s case, monarch.
For Hall, James Laurenson as Vladimir adopts a dominant tone of wry stoicism, laughter playing in the creases of his pleasant face, while Alan Dobie – astonishingly alert and agile for an actor in his eighth decade – offers an Estragon of credulous, resigned despair.
The cradling of old boots, the juggling of hats, even the joint relapse into a wheezy impersonation of WC Fields – all these episodes stoke old memories of former routines. But something really beautiful and peculiar hangs around their realisation that they are indeed “all mankind” whether they like it or not. The observation often feels forced, or pretentious. Here, the dictate of fate is what defines their existence. There is no way out.
And no way forward or back. Anticipation and memory is all they have and, when you think about it, all we have. It is a glib cliché to say that Waiting for Godot is the play where nothing happens twice. Godot never comes twice. But he has the biggest drum role in stage history outside of Kevin Spacey in The Iceman Cometh and Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly!
The bare tree with its knobbly trunk and limpid branches – somehow it reminded me of Merce Cunningham this time – sprouts five green leaves in the interval. The little boy twice reports Godot’s absence. The full moon twice rises in the black sky. And twice Pozzo crosses the stage with his dog/slave Lucky. Second time around, Pozzo is blind and Lucky is dumb. Terence Rigby as the blustering businessman represents the material life condemned in the spirituality of the play, while Lucky – whose famous nonsensical aria is given the full works by Richard Dormer – is a one-man condensation of a rewinding social video tape.
No word or gesture is superfluous, so that Pozzo’s furious volte face – “They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more” – sounds to the crack of doom. How can anyone not see that the play is a bleak hymn to the human condition, just like King Lear? With a smear of Irishness and a metronomic majesty, Hall directs the piece like Mozart, content revealed in its classical form.
- Michael Coveney