Nearly 55 years since its English-language premiere at the then-experimental Arts Theatre, we are still waiting for Godot. Even though Beckett’s play has now been so fully absorbed into the canon that it now appears at no less than that ultimate bastion of theatrical conventionality, the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, its mysteries and wonders still run deep, as does its dark vein of nihilistic humour about the pointlessness of human existence and the point of killing time as we contemplate it. Meanwhile, the Arts itself has paradoxically found a more mainstream way of marking the passage of time, in every sense, with its retro sixties revue, Shout!.
Sean Mathias, launching his tenure as artistic director of the Haymarket’s 2009 producing season, and his designer Stephen Brimson Lewis disobey Beckett’s own stage directions for its rudimentary setting: “A country road. A tree.” The tree is there, but it sprouts from the floorboards of the rake of the post-apocalyptic stage of the crumbling shell of a pros arch theatre that offers a different kind of barren landscape entirely.
It’s one full of theatrical ghosts – you could stage Sondheim’s Follies here. And Mathias’ casting is like a reunion of stage veterans – Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart first worked together in the RSC more than 30 years ago and now come to their roles of Estragon and Vladimir after recently playing King Lear and Claudius for the RSC respectively.
That classical weight and dignity is worn lightly here. Instead, they are like an old vaudeville act rehearsing their routine one more time, and both actors project the overpowering sense of their mutual dependency with a sly sense of intimacy, trust and affection. There’s lots of playful teasing here that accentuates the tragic comedy of their plight and makes it seem more cosy than shattering. There may not be enough desperation at times, but there’s plenty of pathos in the repeated attempts of Stewart’s Vladimir to buoy up McKellen’s increasingly desolate Estragon.
It turns into a moving portrait of the consolations of companionship and friendship, painfully contrasted by the disturbing abusiveness of the partnership of Simon Callow’s red-faced Pozzo and Ronald Pickup’s forever put-upon Lucky.