An empty stage that isn’t a stage, but a broken extension of the theatre around it. The stage boards warp upwards, a tree breaks through in one spot and a ditch runs left to right in front of what appears to be the back interior wall of the theatre. If it is, it’s clearly seen better days. To the right of stage front there are two arches, a ruined balcony, to the left, nothing.
The stage is empty. The stage is waiting.
A hand appears. An old man hauls himself painfully out of the ditch and hobbles down to the front of the stage. He takes his boots off, shakes them out, looks around him with a mixture of pain and resignation. Suddenly, a booming voice from off stage yells ‘THERE YOU ARE!’ and another man appears, all motion and bonhomie were the first is silence and frailty.
On balance, it’s not the most likely opening for a comedy.
Waiting for Godot is one of those plays, that, like Hamlet and to some extent The Cherry Orchard, has become elemental, almost a part of the fabric of theatrical drama as much as a play in it’s own right. Superficially at least this is down to the fact that Godot is a play where everything is stripped away and back, where the stage is bare or in this case broken and all that’s left are two men trapped in the moment before the moment.
When I went to see Hamlet last year, I wrote about how the bare bones design of the theatre helped the performance immeasurably and this production of Waiting for Godot, if anything, takes it a step further. Here, the set is present but it’s a broken mirror of the theatre and the implications that raises are fascinating. It instantly gives the production a sense of intimacy, stage and audience melding to create a single environment in which the audience are present but passive, invisible apart from a nagging sense of unease every time the two tramps glance our way.
For Vladimir and Estragon though, this set has even more significance, the empty theatre providing the topography of their relationship. Estragon drags himself on stage from below, Vladimir dances into view from the wings, a tramp and a ragged-edged song and dance man killing time waiting for the man that never comes.
Of course, with a cast like this, the two tramps aren’t alone, at least initially. Mckellen is best known as both Gandalf and Magneto, both roles with tremendous genre fiction cache and a tremendous amount of baggage. After all, entire generations have been introduced to Tolkien’s work by Mckellen’s gentle, regal wizard and the current success of Marvel Studios’ movie adaptations owes a tremendous amount to Mckellen’s spiky, angry, furious, Erik Lehnsherr.
Neither of those two men, or Mckellen himself make an appearance on stage. Instead, Estragon limps into view, smaller than any of the other three men, more damaged, more frail and somehow angrier. Mckellen’s Lancastrian accent seems made for Beckett’s circular conversations and Estragon’s dour wit and the long-suffering way he approaches every situation is by turns charming, hilarious and tragic. Estragon is the passive half, always tired, always confused, rarely moving but Mckellen gives him a very dark energy when that changes. The casual, fervent malice with which he suggests attacking the badly wounded Pozzo and Lucky speaks to a lifetime and more of victimisation, of a man who has been kicked for years suddenly realising he’s no longer the one lying on the floor. There’s a tiny flash of triumph, a tiny moment of vindication and then he’s trapped in the same moment he and Vladimir have spent their lives inside; the moment before the blow hits, the moment before the decision is made. He wants to kill himself, he wants to leave, he wants to stay with Vladimir, he wants to sleep, he wants Godot to give them meaning, he wants a carrot even though he’s eaten the last one. Estragon’s tragedy is just this, a gluttony of potential and a paucity of action. He wants everything and in wanting everything, gets nothing.
Stewart’s Vladimir also comes to the stage with company. As well as decades of work as a theatrical and movie actor, Stewart also has two iconic genre roles; Captain Jean Luc Picard and Professor Charles Xavier who, like Mckellen’s Erik Lehnsherr is one of the foundation stones of Marvel’s current fortunes. Like Mckellen, Stewart appears to have examined each of the best known qualities of both these roles and his previous work and taken a deliberate step in the other direction and, like Mckellen, the result is startling.
Where Picard was articulate, eloquent, measured Vladimir is a stream of consciousness given form, saying anything and everything just to fill the space that Estragon leaves, to kill time, to fill the silence. Where Charles Xavier is measured, compassionate, considerate Vladimir has a hint of petulance to him, a sense that he’s looked after Estragon for long enough, that he wants things to change, that he’s sick of the fact they aren’t and if something doesn’t change soon? He’ll not be responsible for his actions.
Except, of course, he has no actions to take. He wants to leave Estragon, he wants Godot to come, he wants to be seen, to be noticed. Denied even Estragon’s occasional, blissful ignorance of their situation, Vladimir is a man alone on a darkened stage and there are times in the production where he lets himself realise that and Stewart curls up, foetal with horror, in the background.
Of course, neither man is completely alone or, in fact, complete. Together they form a barely functional individual, Estragon’s pragmatism balancing Vladimir’s slightly desperate cheer to the extent they can think and at times focus. Ironically it’s this very security that locks the two men in place, neither willing to be the first to break the partnership up and both all too aware that without the other, they’re nothing. It’s this realisation, this slow acceptance of both their co-dependancy and the doom it brings that leads to a single, inescapable conclusion;
Vladimir and Estragon are Morecambe and Wise in hell or, at best, limbo.
They are the elemental double act and Stewart and Mckellen embrace the tenderness and humour that stems from that. There’s something impish about the pair of them, a barely contained glee that whilst the world has passed them by they have, somehow, won. They’re still here, still breathing and if they can have a little fun before they go then it’ll make the time pass all the faster. It’s a peculiarly English take on the play and the ghosts of Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise are present on stage at least as much as those of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The fact the production’s first curtain call sees these two towering pillars of English theatre perform a gloriously bad soft shoe shuffle to ‘Underneath The Arches’ only drives the point home; Vladimir and Estragon may be trapped between moments, but there’s fun to be had even there.
Whilst the ghosts of double acts past and future wait with them, Vladimir and Estragon are also joined by Pozzo and Lucky. Pozzo, played like a Pickwickian nightmare by Simon Callow is all colour and energy and volume whilst Lucky, played by Ronald Pickup is a silent beast of burden, a broken man whose single moment of terrifying, unending lucidity is both supremely funny and utterly terrifying. They don’t so much make an entrance as kick the door in, Lucky dragging Pozzo behind him on a huge rope, Pozzo bellowing precise instructions for so long that it becomes funny, then horrific, then funny again.
They’re a curious, troublesome section of the play, giving it a sense of geography and place that at first seem to damage the atmosphere Beckett works so hard to create. But as the scene goes on, it becomes clear that Pozzo and Lucky are as questionable, as disturbing as Vladimir and Estragon. One pair are static, the other constantly in motion, one pair are reluctant equals whilst the other are master and servant. One pair understand where they are in life, the other have no inclination to do so. Pozzo and Lucky aren’t just the embodiment of everything Vladimir and Estragon are not, they are the embodiment of everything the two tramps push against; needless action, heedless movement, struggling to reach an ill defined destination. Vladimir and Estragon may not be going anywhere but they know exactly where they’re not going and that, sometimes, is enough.
Interestingly, Pozzo and Lucky also serve as a warning for why Vladimir and Estragon can never take action. Their appearance in the second act, blinded and injured by something terrible waiting in the wings (Perhaps, as my wife pointed out, something that happens in the other play they are on their way to and from) turns them from a controlling, threatening presence to the only thing lower than the two tramps and Estragon’s quiet, fervent suggestion that they attack them shows exactly how dangerous the two leads have the potential to be. They are two men with everything to gain but who are so frightened of losing the possibility of action that they remain paralysed, held in place by the chance of change. They are a held breath, a stifled scream and that’s where the true horror of the play lies.
But horror isn’t what Waiting for Godot is about, or certainly, not this production. Ultimately, it’s a play about friendship that endures everything, even the end of friendship itself. The untidy, messy boundaries of intimacy, the ability to finish one another’s sentences and jokes, to salve and open wounds is something that is common through every close relationship in society from marriage and siblings to work place and team mates. We are more when we are together and that realisation, that acceptance that it’s better to be more than the sum of your parts is what binds these two men together. It also lies at the heart of the deadpan humour and laconic wit, the gentle, almost sly acceptance that they’re playing to an audience and that audience is loving every minute of it. This is, in short, a play about having fun. After all, you have to do something whilst you’re waiting for Godot…