A stage full of actors at the height of their powers--what could be better? A review of Sean Matthias' production of Waiting for Godot

Samuel Beckett wrote “Waiting for Godot” after the Second World War, when he had been settled in Paris for twenty years or so. He had become completely bilingual, and the play as first performed at the Théâtre de Babylone in 1953 was almost certainly first conceived and written in French. The English version (cf George Steiner, “Of nuance & scruple” in Extraterritorial, 1972) - also by Beckett, so not a translation - had its first production, directed by Peter Hall, at the Arts Theatre in London in 1955.

These were, in the wider cultural imagination, the high tide years of Parisian existentialism - Sartre, Camus, Les Temps Modernes, Juliet Greco, black polo necks and stockings, Merleau-Ponty, and the solemn discussion of being in-itself and being for-itself, of nothingness and the other, of hell as other people and Situations. Beckett’s play seemed, at least to the literati of the time, to fit into this world, hand to glove, and was widely interpreted as a sombre, generally painful reflection on humankind’s solitary and alienated position of hopelessness in an indifferent universe bounded by unsought birth and unavoidable death. Here we stand, waiting for the Godot of whatever we care to make of it.

Like all cultural movements, existentialism had its opponents as well as its adherents. Some theatre-goers walked out of Hall’s production in protest. Many professed an inability to understand what the play was about. Others, who accepted that it was a play about a couple of old tramps stuck somewhere under a tree, arguing, discussing, worrying, brooding and remembering/forgetting together while they waited for the mysterious Godot to turn up, thought it too dark, or too trivial, or too irritatingly uninteresting to warrant attention. The additional characters of Pozzo and Lucky, who break into this bleak world of down and outs, seemed to many to be inexplicable, opaque to the point of darkness.

It is worth remembering these early responses because they help us to see how times have changed, how much we have learned. Beckett’s play has remained the same, but directors, actors, audiences and (most)* critics have all matured in the six decades since it was written, and can now see it for what it is and might be: a sometimes tender, sometimes bitter expression of the human capacity for communication, reflection, compassion and understanding against all the odds - even those confronted by outsiders. *(Charles Spencer, writing in The Daily Telegraph during the British provincial run before the play opened at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket on 30 April a year ago, called the production “Godot lite”. A sophistry.)

Of course it remains also a sombre, sometimes dark play, but the syntax of Beckett’s dialogue is so musical, the chords and cadences of expression so dependent on point and counter-point, whether harmonious or discordant, that the play is lifted from cold pessimism, and warms with entertainment even as it drains of hope. Rather than the burdens of modernism weighing down its bent shoulders, it reminded me in this sparkling production of the youthful Brahms and Joachim sending each other harder and harder counterpoint exercises to do. Here, chew on this, you’ll love it really. It is hard to believe that there could be better theatre, more instructive or more diverting, more imaginative or more truthful.

These features of the play are given marvellous expression in this production, directed by Sean Mathias, that has just been to Wellington for five performances, and will be staged in Christchurch at the Isaac Theatre Royal on 13 and 14 July. Mathias has set Sir Ian McKellen free to make of Estragon - the Gogo of long friendship with Roger Rees’s Vladimir (Didi) - a figure who combines the pathos of age, uncertainty, forbearance, doubt and failing memory with the contrived buoyancy of a vaudeville figure, laughing at circumstance, still playful in the face of hardship, ready to face death, dubious of Godot’s intention of coming, tied to his companion while yearning for freedom, still interested in the world of others while finding them deeply perplexing and disturbing. McKellen is completely at home in this part. He is Gogo.

He can’t do it alone, however. Roger Rees - who took over the part of Vladimir from Patrick Stewart at the beginning of the year, and is staying on tour with it through Australia, New Zealand and South Africa - is a superb oratorical counter to the fumbling uncertainty of his companion. And the two, so to speak, worldly figures of Pozzo and Lucky, played by Matthew Kelly and Brendan O’Hea, who break into the closed world of the two tramps like some violent atonal sub-Stravinsky orchestral clash, cast such a painful light on the worlds of possessions, control, and self-distraction through sport, or science, or philosophy, or hobbies, or any of the myriad other ways that we shelter ourselves from the truth of our situation, are choreographed brilliantly into and through the consciousness of Gogo and Didi, whom they frighten, perplex, and make sorrowful by turns. Here, this is how you can distract yourself in life, they say. Focus on this. But it won’t wash. “Well that helped to pass the time” says Vladimir. “It would have passed anyway,” Estragon replies.

The set, a ruined theatre with its boxes and proscenium arch, smashed set masonry and dilapidated flats, a half-opened trapdoor, and a tree - the famous tree - growing up through the boards, is a work of genius. The play is full of references to the theatricality of life, so the idea of the two old tramps hanging out on the neglected set enables them to play it in double alienation. It also makes us, the audience, not the impossibly present witnesses of a roadside encounter, but the occupants of what, to the characters on the stage, are the empty seats of an auditorium to which they are by turns addressing their despair, their bits
of business, their entertainment routines and their duet performances.

Sean Mathias’s direction of Beckett’s "Waiting for Godot" is one of the great theatrical performances of a lifetime. Everyone in this show, on stage and behind it, is at the height of his and her powers. McKellen wrote about his part in the play earlier this year: “. . . it’s joyful to me, in my 71st year, to be able to be in a play that is absolutely right for my age and my experience, and that is a popular success. What more could you ask as an actor?”

If you can get to Christchurch you still have a chance to share his joy, and that of the cast around him. What more could you ask as a theatre-goer?

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