Thursday, 19 March 2009

Waiting for Godot

Milton Keynes Theatre
16 March 2009

Much ado about literally nothing!

I love Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot but I don’t think I’ll ever truly know what it’s about – and that, I guess, is part of the joy of watching it.

But I have to say that in this wonderful production, as well as wondering, yet again, what Samuel Beckett had in mind, I was completely mesmerised by the fact that I was watching some of the country’s greatest actors – on the one stage – at the same time!

You’re usually lucky to be watching one – but to get Sir Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Simon Callow and Ronald Pickup altogether was just such a privilege, it’s simply the only word you can use! In fact, you would only have to write a part for Simon Russell Beale – oh yes, and Anthony Sher - to get the full house of the UK’s top performers in my book!

But first – what’s the play about? Well, if I could answer that I would have made my name as a respected academic years ago, because any kind of discussion about what Waiting for Godot "means" usually ends up as a tangled mess. Audiences and critics alike have tried to do it for years, so I’m not going to attempt a solution here – just give a few random thoughts about what I like to think it’s about, because that’s really what I think Beckett wanted to achieve – people talking about it! So, job done Sam!

The action of the play – or inaction anyway – centres on Vladimir (Stewart) and Estragon (McKellen). Two men who appear to be tramps, but no one really knows who they are. They mess around affectionately, bickering and arguing like some old married couple who have been together so long that everything that needs to be said has been discussed! But no one knows where they have come from, or where they are going. All we know is that they are waiting for someone called Godot. Into their world comes the brash Pozzo (Callow) holding his servant Lucky (Pickup) on a rope, and they are brought messages from Godot by a mysterious “boy”. And nothing really happens throughout, but you are still glued to your seat for two hours!

I love this play because you can watch it over and over again and still get different things out of it. For me, Sean Matthias’ production highlighted the idea that the characters are all performers and Vladimir and Estragon are more of a double act in this production than I’ve ever seen before, right down to the scratching of their heads in a Laurel and Hardy-esque fashion.

And Stephen Brimson Lewis’s fabulous set depicts them waiting in a kind of dilapidated old theatre with boxes, wings and a fly tower so that you can imagine that perhaps the two once used to work there as a music hall act. Callow’s Pozzo is dressed as a circus ringmaster who drags Lucky around like the organ grinder’s monkey. To compound this theatrical idea, as Mckellen and Stewart actors take their applause, they also shuffle along to Flanagan and Allen's Underneath the Arches, while, on this particular night anyway, the audience stood to applaud in a well-deserved ovation.

Some commentators have focused on the religious imagery of the play. The characters talk of the crucifixion and Christ but it has also been suggested that Godot is really God, and that the tramps attitude towards the elusive character – partly hope and partly fear – represents the state in which many Christians live.

As for me, well, I like the religious argument, but I also like to see Vladimir and Estragon as two characters who are representing us in our own lives, whichever faith we follow. They are quite literally messing around waiting for something of note to happen and to be honest, sometimes that’s exactly how I feel myself! It manages to squeeze out comedy and pathos from the idea of boredom – something that it’s all too easy to identify with!

Whatever you think about the play, the fact remains that there is very little action. As the characters say on more than one occasion - “Nothing happens”. Therefore, you have to rely on the actors to make the fantastic word play come alive and in these four, I don’t think you can get better. The performances are outstanding.

McKellen and Stewart portray both the ease and frustration of a longstanding friendship that is mesmerising as they ponder and contemplate. Callow provides the perfect foil as the loud man of action who never actually achieves anything for all his bluster. Lucky only has one speech, but, as a mixture of words and expressions that seemingly bear no relation to each other, it is surely the most difficult to learn and portray ever written! It would be tempting to learn it by rote but, in Pickup, you can really hear the thought processes working as if he had only just thought up the whole thing!

Special mention must also be made of 11-year-old Gabriel Steele who is sharing the role of “boy” with another youngster. On only a day’s rehearsal, including just one run through on the stage, he was a natural, appearing completely un-phased by his illustrious stage companions and delivering his lines clearly and confidently. Definitely one to watch!

When this play first appeared on stage in 1955 (what a shock that must have been to audiences used to a diet of Coward and Maugham!) Kenneth Tynan ‘got it’. He wrote in the Observer that it has “no plot, no climax, no denouement; no beginning, no middle and no end. It arrives at the custom-house, as it were, with no luggage, no passport and nothing to declare; yet it gets through as might a pilgrim from Mars.”He believed that it did this because it proved that a play was basically a means of spending two hours in the dark without being bored. He was right, as far as Godot is concerned anyway (read last week’s Pack of Lies review!), and over 50 years later he still is, because this play with these performers is a theatrical triumph!

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