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A night at the circus

The star turns are accomplished, but Beckett’s chilling vision is obscured

I wonder what the first ever first night of Waiting for Godot was like.

Did audiences fumble in their programmes to see who would be playing Godot? And did Peter Hall at the Royal Court in 1955 do what they later did in Sleuth, and insert a made-up name and CV in the notes for an actor who was never going to appear? Or was it obvious even then that there was no Godot, that the play was not about him (or Him), but about waiting?

They could easily have been misled by the play’s religious symbolism. A tree on stage is a tree of knowledge or of life (it springs leaves in Act II) or a scaffold. The tramps Estragon and Vladimir repeatedly discuss Calvary and the mortal sin of suicide.

Godot, they say explicitly, will be their salvation.

Perhaps those original audiences thought the surprise twist would be that God(ot) would damn them, or else turn out to be as lost and aimless as they. But no. Realistically it was never going to happen. The arrival of the title character would have generated too much excitement.

The problem with any production of Waiting is that while its subject is boredom, boredom is the one aesthetic response no artist wishes from his audience.

Beckett’s way round this was to invent bored characters who were not themselves boring. The problem for audiences today, and perhaps in the Fifties, too, is that Beckett found clowns much more interesting than most of us.

At the Haymarket, where this plush production has finally arrived after a long tour, Estragon and Vladimir mess about with bowler hats, roll up their trouser legs, drop their trousers. Quel amusement, so long as Laurel and Hardy are your idea of comic genius.

You cannot fault Ian McKellen as a furry Estragon and Patrick Stewart as a scrawny Vladimir for their physical, mimetic grace. At the curtain call they do a vaudeville dance routine, bowler hats waving, but their performances have yearned to break into one all along.

McKellen adopts a northern accent for his clown. Stewart is more Rada. They perform for each other, which is fine, because it is the tramps’ secret deal that anything that passes the time is legitimate. The disappointment is that, animated by McKellen and Stewart, they show more love for their own theatrics than for each other.

That these two theatrical knights (Captain Picard’s is surely only an honours list away) are giving us expert but old-fashionedly big performances really hits you when Simon Callow as Pozzo comes on.

Pozzo is the most symbolised character of all, entering on the end of a rope tugged by his slave Lucky (the impeccable Ronald Pickup, who sprints through Beckett’s bleakest-ever verbal aria) and dressed up as a circus ringmaster. He is the entertainer who fails to entertain. Yet Callow brings naturalism and pathos to the part.

But what does the director, Sean Mathias, bring to the wake? His stage is a mix of “Waste Land” and West End, a bombed stage dominated by a tree, certainly not Beckett’s country road but not really a music hall stage either.

The options for more topically desolate locations abound – how about New Orleans, Baghdad or even the City of London? But the designer Stephen Brimson Lewis locates this Godot back in an age before it was even written.

With a programme depicting Stewart and McKellen in their X-Men roles and a first-night audience that included Paul McCartney, this Godot is a theatrical event that rarely chills us with Beckett’s vision that we are born astride a grave that it takes an unconscionable time to fall into.

The first act tackles the banality of unhappiness, the second the pitiful inadequacy of happiness. Through both, enough of Beckett’s lines zing – “That passed the time”/“It would have passed anyway” . . . “I can’t go on like this”/“That’s what you think” – to make you want to hoard them away for future use.

They may offer only oblique insights into Beckett’s characters but they certainly add up to a coherently suicidal world view.

By the end, I was suitably depressed.

Over a glass of wine afterwards, however, I began to wonder how much of an insight these long two and a half hours offer. Do most of us really find the march to the grave such a slog? Isn’t the real problem with life not that it drags but that (except some nights at the theatre) it slips by at frightening speed?

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times
Waiting for Godot is at Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London SW1

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Rock bottom