Waiting For Godot: King's Theatre Edinburgh, 18 April 2009
Keen readers of this blog will know that I was born on the day the English language version of Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot had its premiere (directed by Peter Hall). Hardly a surprise, then, that I would take an interest in the play: but this production was one of the most keenly-awaited theatrical events of the year, on account of its stellar cast. Godot has four main characters, and in this production they were cast as follows:
I'm prepared to bet that all my readers, wherever they are, will have heard of the first three: Ronald Pickup is pretty well-known in Britain (not least for voicing Aslan in a very popular TV version of the Narnia books some years ago).
Last time I reviewed a play I received some anonymous stick for spenidng more time expounding the (probably unfamiliar to most readers) plot than on giving my own impressions. So let's dispose of the plot of Godot: it's the one in which nothing happens, twice. Which may be a soundbite, but isn't far from the truth. Its most famous single line is "They give birth astride of a grave. The light gleams an instant, then it's night once more." Which makes it sound like a piece of bleak existential fare, when in fact it's a very funny play indeed. Here (in some other production) is the other very famous bit, to wit Lucky's speech. He only has one. It goes on a bit, and is something of a tour de..... but enough of my exposition:
So, the Edinburgh production. The design, by Stephen Brimson Lewis, appeared to be part of a bombed-out city. The direction, by Sean Mathias, played to the strengths of all the actors but especially McKellen and Stewart. The humour was underlined without being vulgarised (though the comic boi-n-n-ng sound effect whenever Pozzo sat down in Act One came close to the latter). Pickup was terrific as Lucky, not just when doing his speech but throughout his scenes. The mixture of resentment and resignation he managed to convey, every single time he had to drop his bags to obey some command of Pozzo's before grabbing them up again, is difficult to convey: yet he did it, again and again. Simon Callow is probably best known to general audiences as a comedy actor (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bedrooms and Hallways, Shakespeare In Love) so it will be no surprise that his Act One performance as Pozzo, where the comic elements are to the fore, was first-rate. Those who also know him as a hugely versatile stage actor (he was the original stage Mozart in Amadeus and has played a wide variety of roles in both classical drama and modern politcially-engaged pieces) will not have been surprised that his Act Two Pozzo (who has the "astride of a grave" line was every bit as marvellous, nor that he still managed to be funny when the script called for it.
And so to the two megastars. As far as I can tell they hadn't appeared together on stage before, though X-Men fans will be very well aware that they have done so in film. McKellen is of course most famous as Gandalf in The Lord Of The Rings, Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard in various Star Trek series, but I can remember Mckellen being on TV as Richard II and Edward II back in the black & white days, while Stewart became a star on I, Claudius (which also catapulted Derek Jacobi to stardom) as the creepy Sejanus. Neither was remotely magisterial or creepy in Godot: just two tramps, each with a distinctive personality, some of which is written by Beckett but much of which they brought to the roles themselves. The adeptness with which they carried out some of the comic business with hats or trousers, and the agility with which they moved, made you forget that these guys are about 70 years old. Every line was milked for what it contained, be it pathos, humour, philosophical reflection or none of the above, and every line was effortlessly audible. Maybe nothing happens (twice), but nobody was going to be bored when these guys were playing. I was still somewhat jetlagged, with body seven hours behind mind, but not even I felt the least compulsion to check my watch during the play. (To give my body to be burned, St Paul-style, possibly: the seating up in the gods is singularly uncomfortable in the ings. I remember vividly a Midsummer Night's Dream there many years ago with Ken Branagh, Richard Briers and Emma Thompson, not just for the performances but for the cramp that went with them.) One had the same feeling about their on-stage relationship as with Morecambe & Wise: that the warmth between them was based on complete knowledge of each other, and yet the possibility of surprises still existed.
The production tours until the beginning of May when it opens at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket in London. Go and see it if you can: then you can hold your head up when your friends brag of having seen David Tennant as Hamlet.