Following an eight-week tour Sean Mathias’ revival of Samuel Beckett’s 1955 classic Waiting for Godot opened last night (6 May 2009, previews from 30 April) at the West End’s Theatre Royal Haymarket, where it recently extended its season by a month to 26 July (See News, 28 Apr 2009).
In Beckett’s masterpiece, McKellen and Stewart are Estragon and Vladimir, two tramps who pass the time by a deserted road as they wait for the mysterious Godot. They’re joined in the cast by Simon Callow and Ronald Pickup as Pozzo and Lucky. The child actors chosen to alternate in the role of a boy in the West End are: George Sear, Richard Linnell, Sam Walton and Tom Barker (who performed last night).
The production is designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis, with lighting by Paul Pyant, and produced by the Theatre Royal Haymarket Company, in partnership with Duncan C Weldon, as the first offering in a second season of in-house programming, for which Mathias has been appointed as artistic director. Subsequent productions in Mathias’ season – which follows the 2007/8 inaugural season helmed by Jonathan Kent – are expected to be announced imminently.
For most overnight London critics, the McKellen-Stewart pairing in Waiting for Godot is an unqualified success – their interplay was variously described as “inspired”, “outstanding”, “excellent”, “just about everything we could expect Vladimir and Estragon to be” and as “deftly performed as you are ever likely to see”. However, despite the central performances, some still didn’t warm to Beckett’s play in which, famously, nothing happens, twice, and there were reservations about the “coarseness”, “jollity” and “cosy charm” of Sean Mathias’ production. Still, while theatregoers may miss “a full, gut-whacking, nihilistic” Beckett offering here, they’ll no doubt be consoled by the rare “chance to catch two veteran actors at the top of their game”.
- Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – “In Sean Mathias’ fine and fearless production (nothing sombre or po-faced about it), McKellen and Stewart are ... 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 ... McKellen in particular conveys the pathos of our everyday insignificance; I rate this one of his truly outstanding performances ... Callow may sound like obvious casting, but his Pozzo is a wonderfully vivid grotesque ... A wonderful revival.”
- Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) – “Sean Mathias' star-studded revival misses the elegiac musicality of Peter Hall's 2006 production and lends this unnerving play a patina of cosy charm. The governing notion seems to be that Beckett's play is a self-reflexive study of theatre ... Everyone since 1955 has noted the influence of vaudevillian cross-talk and silent-screen comedy on Beckett's writing; and here Didi and Gogo resemble a pair of down-at-heel entertainers ... Stewart lends Didi a tattered dignity and perverse optimism ... McKellen's Gogo is gruffer, seedier and profoundly sceptical ... While highlighting the characters' individuality, the two actors also bring out their interdependence and poignant fear of isolation. Simon Callow and Ronald Pickup seem equally indissoluble as Pozzo and Lucky ... But, while there is much to enjoy in the production, I felt I was watching talented comic performers rather than listening to the still sad music of humanity.”
- Nick Curtis in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “The Pat ’n’ Mac double-act turns out to be a inspired pairing, if slightly unbalanced in terms of pathos. As for the play: Sean Mathias’ production harps a bit too much on its music-hall roots ... The two actors movingly express the fond antagonism of a double-act where the patience, and the meagre bookings, ran out long ago ... Of the two, McKellen’s scrubby-bearded Estragon is the more convincingly derelict ... There’s something too irrepressibly twinkly and chipper about Stewart, despite his torn clothes. We miss the anguish beneath the brightness ... Simon Callow plays Pozzo as if simultaneously channelling a cruel ringmaster and Mr Toad. It’s not an invalid reading, just a hammily brash one in keeping with Mathias’ concept ... Ronald Pickup’s Lucky is another impressive but stagey creation ... Waiting for Godot doesn’t gain in depth from repeated viewing ... The coarseness of Mathias’ production is actually rather welcome after years of reverence. And the central double act is as deftly performed as you are ever likely to see it. This is a chance to catch two veteran actors at the top of their game. McKellen and Stewart mesh delightfully together. Although they don’t, perhaps, entirely live up to the hype.”
- Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) – “In its 55-year history, Waiting for Godot has attracted some striking and even startling actors ... But last night the appeal to popular taste moved from the comics to the comic books. For fans of the movies based on those books, Sean Mathias’ revival will doubtless go down as the X-Men Godot ... But Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen happen also to be superb classic actors — and they proved it with performances that were at once subtle and commanding, touching and funny, vulnerable and dignified and just about everything we could expect Vladimir and Estragon to be ... Simon Callow’s Pozzo is ... impressive, but maybe Ronald Pickup, playing his slave Lucky, could do more to bring out the true coherence of the most despairing speech even Beckett wrote. But there are no other serious complaints, least of all about the Stewart/McKellen combo. Few could bring such variety to the business of being bored. They’re moving, they’re witty, they’re inventive, they’re - well, excellent.”
- Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail – “There is an awful lot of the two stars – Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart – in the swanky, new Waiting for Godot. Stewart, in particular, does not so much play Vladimir the tramp as he plays Patrick Stewart OBE playing Vladimir the tramp ... This is a highly competent Godot, a memorable Godot, sometimes inventive, often entertaining ... Yet the jollity is pushed a little far. One does not leave the theatre stunned by man’s loneliness ... Simon Callow’s Pozzo ... is a circus caricature, instantly striking but of fading appeal. Ronald Pickup, playing his servant Lucky, is a slower burn, thank goodness. People who have managed to secure tickets ... will be able to say they saw ‘the famous McKellen-Stewart Godot’. That is perhaps not quite the same as a full, gut-whacking, nihilistic Beckett Godot. Celebrity has nudged aside art.”
- by Terri Paddock