Beckett’s most famous play has a habit of splitting opinion, the theatrical equivalent of Marmite. There are those who find it pointless and obtuse, two tramps loitering while nothing much happens, and those who see it as a masterpiece of theatre, a turning point in 20th century drama.
In the hands of director Sean Mathias and his mouth-watering cast of Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Simon Callow and Ronald Pickup, Waiting For Godot is playful, packed with more humour than The Bumper Book of Jokes, and touchingly illuminates two unbreakable co-dependent relationships.
The crumbling remains of a decrepit proscenium arch – designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis – frame the meeting place of two old friends Estragon (McKellen) and Vladimir (Stewart), hinting at a lost past on the stage. The pair banter and patter like an old double act, Stewart more often than not playing the straight man and allowing McKellen to shine, exposing his often underused talent for comedy with a twitchy, fidgety performance of physical and vocal excellence.
The success of Godot must rest on the central relationship, and in McKellen and Stewart this production has an eminently believable team. When they speak of 50 years of shared history, there is no questioning its authenticity. Their relative ages, of course, assist this truth, but not so much as their interaction, which moves from that of colleagues to old friends to father/son and to sibling squabbling, but always with the knowledge that whatever is said and done can never shake their core.
Callow’s Pozzo makes a colourful entrance into the tramps’ brown and grey world, a panto-esque boomer of a character with his limping, dead-eyed servant Lucky (Pickup). Their relationship is markedly different, yet no less co-dependent and, in its own way, no less moving.
Amid the humour are the questions so often posed by Waiting For Godot. What is it all about? As the second act draws to a close Stewart cuts through the laughter, stepping out of McKellen’s clown-shaped shadow to hint at existential angst, questioning the very nature of reality, while Callow tones down, just slightly, to deliver the famous lines about the fleeting nature of life.
If Godot is, at its heart, about the pointlessness of an existence where one merely waits for the last final meeting, this production might have found a point, or at least highlighted the best way to pass the time. This Vladimir and Estragon could not survive without each other, their relationship is worth waiting around for.