Sir Peter Hall’s 50th anniversary production of Samuel Beckett’s modern masterpiece Waiting for Godot opened at the New Ambassadors this week (Monday 9 October 2006, previews from 3 October), finally receiving its belated West End transfer (See News, 21 Sep 2006).

Two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, are waiting on a deserted road. As they pass the time, they ask the question: “Will Mr Godot ever come?” In the National Theatre’s NT2000 poll, theatre professionals voted Waiting for Godot the most significant English language play of the 20th century.

Hall directed the play’s English-language world premiere in 1955 when he was the 25-year-old artistic director of London’s Arts Theatre. In this production, first seen last summer as part of Hall’s annual summer repertory season at the Theatre Royal Bath, James Laurenson and Alan Dobie are Vladimir and Estragon, with Richard Dormer as Lucky and Terence Rigby as Pozzo.

Overnight critics all agreed Hall’s production of Beckett’s tragi-comedy in which “nothing happens, twice” offers a fascinating insight into the human condition, and they admired the performances of the four leads, particularly the central double-act of James Laurenson and Alan Dobie as Vladimir and Estragon.

  • Michael Coveney on (4 stars) – “This pitch-perfect version of a play… 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…. 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…. 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…. Hall directs the piece like Mozart, content revealed in its classical form.”

  • Sam Marlowe in The Times (4 stars) – “In the void where, in Samuel Beckett’s seminal masterpiece, humanity endures its existence, there is rage, despair, terror and resignation. There are also teasing momentary shafts of bright hope that make the agonising business of being alive just about possible — conveyed in Peter Hall’s revival with exquisite tenderness…. Laurenson’s Vladimir is softer of face, voice and manner, Dobie’s Estragon a mass of frustration and irascibility. They are bound together by fear, but also, Hall emphasises, by affection. They couldn’t survive apart, and wouldn’t want to. There’s an equally unbreakable, and deeply disturbing, bond between Terence Rigby’s cruel, panicky Pozzo and Richard Dormer’s horribly abused Lucky…. leaving you filled with unsettling questions, and with wonder.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (3 stars) – “We never learn anything about this trampish, mysterious pair who have been together for years. They sit around waiting for a Mr Godot, who never arrives, while scarcely pausing from cross cross-talk. They sound like disgruntled music hall comedians left in limbo. Their lives have come to nothing, stranding them in a void, which sports only a stunted tree and single rock: Kevin Rigdon's cheap-looking set does not even offer the evocative framework of sky, preferring to hedge the action with black drapes…. This Waiting For Godot revival does not capture either Beckett's black comedy or his bleak pathos. James Laurenson's Vladimir and Alan Dobie's white-bearded Estragon, dressed as tramps on their uppers, seem oddly detached, not caught in the essential symbiotic bind. They speak at us like stand-up comedians rather than to each other, as if suggesting independence of each other…. The duo's comic repartee trips off the tongue and stumbles. The supple and subtle shifts of mood from the jovial to the menacing and then the sinister are not well done either…. The play still casts its rare spell. Yet as Vladimir says ‘I've been better entertained.’”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (4 stars) - “Seeing it once more, I am struck by its clarity and ability to yield new meanings.” He was full of praise for “the matchless performances of James Laurenson and Alan Dobie…. Laurenson's Vladimir is tall, pseudo-elegant, and is always trying to pin down memory. Dobie's Estragon, in contrast, is short, acerbic but alert to the practicalities of daily survival. Yet what both actors poignantly express is the terror of isolation…. Hall's production has been praised for its musicality. I see it more as a realistic elegy for the meaningless brevity of life. There is, for instance, real despair in the tramps' final cry of ‘I can't go on’. But the paradox of Beckett is that they do go on. And there is something inexpressibly moving about the final image of their shared immobility as they confront an endless series of futile tomorrows.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - "This was to be my third exposure to the play in 15 months, and there are only so many times a chap can take such cheery rib-ticklers as 'Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the gravedigger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries.'.... Much to my surprise however, I found myself thoroughly enjoying this superbly acted production by Peter Hall.... There is something strangely exhilarating about Beckett's unblinking vision of life in a Godless universe, and it is surprising how much the dramatist manages to salvage from the wreckage.... It's hard to imagine the play being better done than it is here. Hall evidently knows and loves every line of the text and he brings out every shade of mood and meaning. And James Laurenson and Alan Dobie... have established a wonderfully rich and intuitive double-act.... somehow, for all the gloom and despair, you emerge from the theatre with a renewed spring in your step. That's what great art does."

    - by Caroline Ansdell