Review: “Waiting for Godot” starring Sir Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart

McKellen and StewartMy introduction to the works of Samuel Beckett was botched. It occured in an undergraduate English course, whose purpose was to examine less than common texts, and sadly I had a less than common lecturer. Unfortunately, he was more fixated on talking about Freud’s ideas on children playing with their excreta (and how we’re actually supposed to treat faeces like Lego) than helping young minds to interpret the classic works in his care; among these was Beckett’s most famous play, “Waiting for Godot”.

To be fair, the teacher was temporarily very excited by this work, utilising phrases like “the silence of God”, the “futility of religious belief”, before returning to pseudo-Freudian interpretations of a character’s incontinence. The lecturer’s propensities would have been bad enough on their own; however, I must admit that the text itself left me cold. I thought it was thoroughly strange and incomprehensible. After I finished the course (through a combination of sheer bloodymindedness and making sure I included excrement in my final exam essay), Godot remained on the fringes of my knowledge. Over time, I did manage to absorb some of the trivia surrounding it, for example, that it was originally written in French, and that adding “-ot” to any name renders it a clownish quality in that language. Apart from this, my experiences suggested it was simply an overwrought play that belonged solely to the pretentious.

It’s fortunate that the talents of Sir Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart have come to the rescue; indeed, this production perhaps represents a turning point in the work’s history, when it is wrested from the hands of the elites and delivered to the general public.

Reading the dry text and listening to lecturers like the one I suffered with completely shuts off one of the play’s most critical dimensions: while there are serious messages and undertones, it is often absolutely hilarious. Prior to seeing this production, I had heard Patrick Stewart saying on BBC Radio 4 that Godot was the precursor to absurdist humour like Little Britain. I raised an eyebrow at the time, but once lights dimmed and the curtain raised, it quickly became obvious that Stewart was correct.

The setting is simple: we see a set of ruins and a tree. This desolate scene is populated by two tramps, Vladimir (Stewart) and Estragon (McKellen). The rapport between the two characters is critical to its success: it helps that Stewart and McKellen are apparently old friends. When Stewart sings “Together Again” to McKellen, there is a warmth and sincerity that transcends mere acting. It’s also useful that both of them bring a helpless, befuddled quality to both of their roles, particularly McKellen. The bizarre lines are transformed by their Shakespearean training; rather than strange, the text is very funny. A good example is a sequence in which they talk about hanging themselves; an inflection, a pause, a tone, all change something which sounds mad into a jest, an expression of frustration, and a refuge from boredom. Even a discussion about whether to eat turnips or carrots is similarly elevated to a humourous level.

The two tramps are forced to amuse themselves while they wait for an unseen character, Godot. Their reverie is interrupted by the arrival of a blustering loudmouth, Pozzo, and his servant, Lucky. Pozzo, played expertly by veteran actor Simon Callow (well known as the character who passed away in “Four Weddings and a Funeral”), is also doing a comic turn: his performance is intentionally so over the top, it could hardly be otherwise. Lucky (Ronald Pickup) is a sad, forlorn figure in this piece; he is kept on a long leash in the form of a noose by Pozzo. Lucky has a number of talents, including “thinking”; when encouraged to do so, he recites a series of ridiculous statements that sound like someone trying to impress a dinner party compromised solely of philosophers after a few too many. As strange as this sounds, the actors give it logic and humour. After the encounter with Pozzo and Lucky, Stewart and McKellen deliver what is perhaps the most hilarious set of lines in the entire play:

VLADIMIR: Well, that passed the time.

ESTRAGON: It would have passed anyway.

VLADIMIR: Yes, but not as quickly.

To the casual reader, this may not seem funny at all: but like with many other amusing situations, “you had to be there”. Indeed, if the play has one weakness it is as follows: it has problems being communicated anywhere other than the stage, and it can’t be done with anything other than top class actors. You “have to be there” in order to “get it”.

Furthermore, Vladimir, Estragon, Pozzo and Lucky are all required to do both comic and tragic turns and change the register extremely quickly. There is also a slight amount of improvisation in reciting the lines: Stewart’s humming little tunes throughout springs to mind; anyone other than a highly skilled actor will have difficulties knowing when this is appropriate or not, and knowing how much to use. If any of these elements are overdone or underdone, the structure shatters, and part of its impact is lost. Too serious, and it falls into the same category as a teenage melodrama about how God hates them. Too funny, and it becomes a skit from a late night television programme. This version is just right: twenty four hours after having seen it, I’m still chuckling in remembrance of some of the lines, and yet thinking about the futility of the tramps’ waiting.

This production has been called the most important theatre event of 2009; it’s difficult to disagree with this summation. You had to be there: this will be the “Godot” by which all others will be judged; it’s merely a pity that there are students throughout the English-speaking world who will continue to experience this work in the same mangled manner I did as an undergraduate, rather than being able to enjoy it, understand it, and benefit from it. Its overriding message that we are living in an absurd world, in which we all seem to be waiting for something which never arrives, seems more relevant than ever and too important to be left solely to the pompous.

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