By Samuel Beckett
Directed by Sean Matthias
Venue: Theatre Royal, Haymarket
Date: Saturday 1st August 2009
I’m so relieved to have finally seen this play. I’m not a fan of Beckett’s work – I think he’s hugely overrated – but I did want to see this one in case it changed my mind and awakened me to the riches others evidently see in his oeuvre. It didn’t. But now, bliss, oh bliss, I can ignore Beckett productions with a clear conscience, confident that there’s nothing for me there. (But then there’s Endgame, Richard Briers’ farewell to the stage…)
The set was interesting. The stage had been built out a little (row A was lost) and on either side at the front was an arched entrance topped by two dummy boxes, designed to echo the real boxes next to them. However the stage ones were dusty and dilapidated, and the narrow bit of roof that stretched between the sets of boxes was crumbling away. There was also a lighting gantry stretching across the space which emphasised the theatricality of the performance. The back wall was of brick, with a plank door to the left hand side. A short distance in front of it was a crumbling wall, and since Estragon climbed up that way to get onto the stage I assume there was a ditch in between them. The stage floor was mainly planks, painted dusty white, and with a steepish rake from the wall down to the middle. The rest was flat. There was a gap in the raked planks approximately in front of the rear door, and a makeshift bench forward of that. Right of centre, at the bottom of the rake, stood the tree – a scrawny trunk and several windblown branches, totally bare. The lighting suggested various times of day, including evening and night time; each half ended with the two leads in a contracting circle of moonlight.
If there is a plot to this play, I, along with the rest of the universe, have yet to discover it. Two tramps, Vladimir (Patrick Stewart) and Estragon (Ian McKellen) spend two evenings waiting by a tree for a chap called Godot. If he comes, they’re saved. If not, they have to come back again and wait the next evening. There’s a sense of endless repetition, coupled with forgetfulness and uncertainty – was it yesterday they met Pozzo and Lucky, or is this the first time they’ve seen them? (And, frankly, who cares?)
Pozzo (Simon Callow) and Lucky (Ronald Pickup) are master and slave. On day one, we see Pozzo treating Lucky badly, as well as being ‘treated’ to a very long speech by Lucky which appeared to contain some garbled dialogue concerning the nature of existence. Possibly. (I found it pretty boring.) On day two, Pozzo has gone blind, and when he and Lucky arrive they fall over, leading to a surfeit of falling over gags. On both days, after they leave, a young boy clambers out from underneath the wall to give the tramps a message from Mr. Godot – he won’t be coming tonight, they have to wait again tomorrow evening. And that’s basically it. Nothing to get excited about or even stay awake for. There was a surprising and entirely necessary amount of humour throughout, mainly during the banter between the two old men. They were a regular old couple, been together for years. And that’s about all I can say about them.
Apart from the funny bits, I found it terribly dreary and I had to stop myself from checking my watch too often. Still, the rest of the audience seemed to enjoy it and I did like the entertaining way they took their bows, with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen acting like a couple of song and dance men. Even so, it was good to be outside in the rain and heading home.
© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me
Confession: I know this play “from the inside” which may be an unfair advantage. I wish you had seen the recent production by Peter Hall, which was absolutely “Les Couilles du Chien” – naturally, since he also did the London premiere. Or the all black version (Jeffrey Kissoon/Patrick Robinson) at the Albany. However I’d side with you in some dissatisfaction with this performance. The fundamental problem was exposed by the two great men in their radio interview when they revealed that they’d “been asked” but didn’t know which was which of Vladimir and Estragon when they arrived to rehearse. It seemed to me that a clear decision had never been reached in rehearsal either.
I’m not old enough to have seen the Arts production but did see good amateurs not that long after. I also had the amazing experience of being Lucky. It’s a risky assumption, but I’d guess that both productions involved a director who had seen the original. (Sadly, no longer possible to check). Anyway, the dubious premise is that both were (distorted?) reflections of the old Peter Hall production. Vladimir was in each case the more sensitive, or perhaps clinging to shreds of dignity: Estragon, who is named after Tarragon in your spice rack, was a bit more earthy. For instance, the casting at Lewes contrasted a man who was a hairdresser in real life, who played Vladimir like a decayed head waiter opposite an Estragon who used a quite subtle northern voice. You couldn’t possibly have mistaken one for the other.
Would any of this have helped you? Possibly not if you don’t “get” absurd humour – Goon Show; Python, Alfred Jarry, Ionesco? If not, sorry for wasting your time. Sometimes the baggage of “reputation” can be extremely offputting.
Thanks for this information, Peter. It’s very helpful to know that the two main characters are meant to be different from one another, which we certainly didn’t get from this production. I MAY be tempted to see another production sometime to see what difference this can make (breath-holding not recommended).
We love absurdist humour (see the Absurd/Surreal category) but don’t find Beckett, amongst others, as funny or as interesting as his reputation warrants. I assume it’s just because my experiences don’t chime with his particular artistic expression. For instance I have no background in religion, other than the generalised version put forward in primary school, and the religous symbology in the play is both obvious and empty for me – perhaps others would find it more meaningful and/or funny? Chacun à son goût, comme on dit.