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Scoop Review - Waiting For Godot

Waiting For Godot
Review by Rory MacKinnon

Directed by Sean Mathias, Theatre Royal Haymarket
Starring Ian McKellen, Roger Rees, Matthew Kelly & Brendan O'Hea
Performed at the St James Theatre
Tickets via Ticketek

The Canadian scholar of English literature Nick Mount once said that Waiting For Godot is essentially about men utterly stripped of pretence; men whose only consolation and greatest fear is their own mortality. “Getting to that moment, when the masks are off; when everything has been revealed – if only for a moment – is what drove Samuel Beckett as an artist.”

How then do you present a play about abject poverty and degradation with one of the world's greatest actors and a young, highly sophisticated, middle-class audience?

You play it for laughs, apparently.

Director Sean Mathias' vision for Godot is oddly joyful: from the way Beckett's lone tree bursts through the blasted cobblestones in Stephen Brimson Lewis' set design to Vladimir and Estragon's habitual jigs and secret handshakes, the whole production surges with a strange sense of vitality. There is suffering, to be sure – and Mathias never trivialises it – but his direction stresses the intensity of simple pleasures as well as agony; Vladimir's belly-laughs as well as his prostate.

Unfortunately for his fellow cast, McKellen is in a league of his own in this performance. His portrayal of Estragon as a doleful, drowsy Yorkshireman is nothing short of masterful; wringing every ounce of warmth from the script as the utterly incurious but deeply devoted friend.

Meanwhile Rees' Vladimir is at times too weak a foil: too easygoing in the first act; apparently unfazed by fifty years of Gogo's feeble mind. Taken with Rees' declamatory style and Mathias' stage directions, Vladimir's argumentation too often feels like mugging to the audience rather than a conversation borne out of loneliness. It may well have simply been opening night nerves though – Rees' monologues in the final act are stirring, nuanced poems of desperation and acceptance which steal the show from McKellen after all.

Matthew Kelly and Brendan O'Hea also deserve a mention for what are extremely challenging roles: as the manic-depressive slavedriver Pozzo Kelly has been forced to ride just shy of pantomime in a play of otherwise naturalistic performances. In contrast O'Hea's Lucky is a blank slate; rich in symbolism but reduced almost entirely to a single hunched posture.

Perhaps the spirit of Mathias' Godot is best captured in the curtain call: arriving back on stage for their third bow, McKellan and Rees cued the music, doffed their bowlers and brought the house down with a gleeful soft-shoe shuffle, two decrepit old men in rags beaming down at their audience. It's a wonderful way to pass the time. It would have passed in any case, yes, but not so rapidly.


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