JOYCE MCMILLAN on WAITING FOR GODOT at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 14.4.09
5 stars *****
IT’S OFTEN SAID THAT fame is a dangerous and fickle thing, and that our society has an unhealthy obsession with the whole business of celebrity. But if you want to see an example of well-earned fame being used in the most creative and life-affirming way possible, then the King’s Theatre in Edinburgh is the place to be this week. For there you will see not just two but four mighty stars of British acting – Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in the leading roles, Simon Callow and Ronald Pickup offering superb support – using all their charm and charisma, all their power to command audience attention, and all their magnificent showbiz and storytelling skill, to draw a huge audience towards Samuel Beckett’s great, intractable absurdist classic Waiting For Godot, and to convince them that this iconic play – in which, famously, “nothing happens, twice” – has something to offer to every one of them.
It’s not that Sean Mathias’s production is built around a completely new approach to the play. Ever since its earliest performance, Beckett’s study of two old tramps waiting in a barren landscape for a Mr. Godot who never comes has been seen as a tribute – at least in part – to the music hall and silent comedy traditions Beckett loved, and to great comedy stars and double-acts from Charlie Chaplin to Laurel and Hardy. And here, that idea is made flesh in an astonishing set by Stephen Brimson Lewis, beautifully lit by Paul Pyant, which turns Vladimir and Estragon’s bleak crossroads into something like the stage of a bombed-out theatre, all crumbling plaster, drifting clouds of dust, and holes in the stage.
In some ways, it’s a risky strategy; there’s nothing more tedious than drama in which theatre examines itself. But given the sheer quality of the acting in this production – its tenderness and grace, its bursts of savagery and buffoonery, and the extraordinary, bleak presence of Ronald Pickup as Lucky, the passing servant routinely brutalised beyond endurance by his fat aristocratic boss, Pozzo – there’s no chance of the play’s deeper resonances going unheard, amid the echoes of music-hall comedy. Instead, the ruined theatrical setting becomes a powerful metaphor for the transience of all life’s warmth and brightness; and the two tramps’ little bursts of well-tried comic business shine like monuments to the human spirit, to our endless desire to perform, and to find reasons for going on, in a universe where, perhaps, no-one is watching at all.
Patrick Stewart is infinitely charming and watchable as the more assertive Vladimir, performing, cajoling, refusing despair; McKellen has moments of pure comic genius as the more vulnerable and venal Estragon. And when Simon Callow’s roaring Pozzo and Pickup’s unforgettable Lucky join them on stage, the effect is astonishing; like watching some mighty ensemble of musicians play one of Beethoven’s difficult late quartets, and somehow make those great meditations on the deepest truths of human existence seem like music for everyone, as rich, complex, absurd, incomprehensible, beautiful and transient, as human life itself.