At the core of last year’s revival of Samuel Beckett’s great play was the moving reconciliation of two RSC titans, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, reduced to hanging about in the metaphorical void, or green room, waiting for Godot and perhaps one last major commission.
Now that Stewart has been replaced by another long-ago RSC veteran, Roger Rees, you’d expect a similar sort of message to apply. But Sean Mathias’ fine production is now completely different: Rees’ Vladimir is spryer, more proactive, even more cheerful, if that’s a word one can use in relation to Beckett. But he’s definitely the junior partner in the act.
And McKellen’s Estragon, hauling himself out of the ditch yet again, beaten up last night yet again, has grown even older, more mysterious, more accommodating. He’s like a very old, very wounded, abandoned dog.
He really has gone through the pain barrier whereas Rees is summoning all that famous Nicholas Nickleby energy and optimism for one last hurrah. It’s a wonderful adjustment to the performance, and McKellen seems to be enjoying seeing Rees again after all these years as much as we are.
But there’s no final soft-shoe shuffle any more. That’s been replaced by an appeal for the Haiti earthquake victims. The devastation has spread beyond the theatrical horizon.
While Ronald Pickup’s Lucky is still jabbering at the end of a long rope, Matthew Kelly - what a great sequence of work this actor is producing - picks up Pozzo’s reins from Simon Callow with a stern and awesome authority, more Victorian but less Dickensian, very frightening.
The production remains a feast of fancy foot work on a blasted heath, an absurd vaudeville in a dilapidated setting (by Stephen Brimson Lewis) of bare boards and crumbling plaster decoration.
And the wonderful, resonating irony is that it’s perpetrated in the most sumptuously beautiful of all West End theatres, one where you’d normally expect to see more hating than waiting for Godot.
- Michael Coveney
NOTE: The following FOUR STAR review dates from May 2009, and this production's original run at the Theatre Royal Haymarket (starring Patrick Stewart as Vladimir and Simon Callow as Pozzo).
In marking their Waiting for Godot curtain call with a soft-shoe shuffle and Bud Flanagan and Chesney Allen’s “Underneath the Arches”, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart make it finally clear that they see Samuel Beckett’s tramps as vaudeville performers. There is nothing original about this. Beckett himself talked in terms of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
But it would be a mistake to assume that McKellen and Stewart are therefore “performing” throughout the play. In Sean Mathias’ fine and fearless production (nothing sombre or po-faced about it) they are much more like two old troupers hanging about for work which might come their way, courtesy of Godot, who seems to have left the office unattended.
McKellen’s Estragon is very much the senior partner in a friendship that convincingly dates back, for once, 50 years. And there’s a real poignancy in seeing these distinguished titans of the RSC, feted all over the world these days for their status in the film world, getting right down back to basics. Stewart’s Vladimir complies balefully with all Estragon says, the two of them bent on giving the impression they exist, lest we forget.
That’s all you do on this earth, pass briefly through, hopefully making a mark or waiting a summons from the inner room. That’s the symbolism of the play, nothing difficult about it at all, and McKellen in particular conveys the pathos of our everyday insignificance; I rate this one of his truly outstanding performances, and I much prefer it to his King Lear.
In contrast, Simon Callow’s florid Pozzo, charging across the stage with Ronald Pickup’s lyrically enslaved Lucky, represents the absurdity of human endeavour in a nutshell, the master race and his human pet. Callow may sound like obvious casting, but his Pozzo is a wonderfully vivid grotesque in a green waistcoat and silver fright wig with an orange topknot. He plays the second act blindness very well, too, stumbling into the dustbowl with his boots and whip to no avail.
The design by Stephen Brimson Lewis cleverly combines the starkness of the void with the consolations of the theatre, a false plaster proscenium, with stage boxes, built inside the Haymarket’s own proscenium, and the floor covered with planks so that the tramps really are treading the boards.
The small boy (Tom Barker on press night, alternating the role with three others) is transfigured in Paul Pyant’s celestial white light – what angel wakes them from their drowsy sleep? – and Paul Groothius’ sound design is full of ominous rumblings and distant thunder. A wonderful revival.
- Michael Coveney