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Waiting for Godot (review)

Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart as Estragon and Vladimir, photo credit: Sasha Gusov

Review by Lizzie Guilfoyle

HAILED by some as the theatrical event of the year, Sean Mathias’ revival of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot has now opened at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. The question is: does it live up to expectations?

As many of you will already know, Waiting for Godot follows two consecutive days in the lives of tramps Vladimir (Patrick Stewart) and Estragon (Ian McKellen), who amuse themselves by clowning around, joking and arguing, while waiting for the mysterious Godot.

For a while on both days, the pair are joined by the imperious Pozzo (Simon Callow) and his hapless ‘slave’ Lucky (Ronald Pickup); and more fleetingly by the boy, Godot’s messenger, who ultimately brings only disappointment.

Since it was first performed, Waiting for Godot has been open to many interpretations, possibly because nothing much really happens in the entire two hours and ten minutes of its duration. And in literary circles that just won’t do. The protagonists, therefore, must be symbolic – and here the general concensus appears to be of humanity – while the titular Godot is perceived by many as God, an idea no doubt fostered by the play’s religious references. Which means, if you look at it this way, the boy is an angel.

However, Beckett himself denied the notion, stating instead that Godot was inspired by the French slang word for boot and boots, like feet, are a prominent part of the play.

Here we see Vladimir and Estragon, not just as friends but as past professional companions – they’ve known each other for 50 years, they speak and behave very much like partners in a double act, and Vladimir’s song and dance routine at the beginning of Act Two comes straight out of music hall. Moreover, the set could well be the ruins of a theatre. And if that isn’t enough to convince you the pair were entertainers, there’s Pozzo, the perfect caricature of a circus ringmaster.

As you would expect, Stewart and McKellen are faultless, bringing to their roles the frailties, wisdom and sadness of old age – although still quick-witted and relatively fleet of foot, Vladimir obviously has a prostate problem and Estragon is forgetful, confused and clearly hasn’t seen a chiropodist for years. I could happily have watched these two perform all evening and I loved their curtain call soft-shoe shuffle to Flanagan and Allen’s Underneath the Arches.

If I’m honest, I didn’t particularly like Pozzo or Lucky although I cannot fault Callow’s or Pickup’s performances. In fact, I might go so far as to say that it was Pickup who almost stole the show with Lucky’s lengthy and incomprehensible outpouring, all the more amazing coming as it did from a man who previously and subsequently remained mute.

I’m also inclined to think their presence represents the passage of time – Pozzo’s physical condition deteriorates far too dramatically for the ‘action’ to take place over the course of just two days. And with one day very much like the next for Vladimir and Estragon, time becomes a blur. Besides, would a tree really produce full blown leaves overnight?

But whatever, whichever way you look at it, this is indeed an excellent production and most certainly does live up to expectations. So if you like Beckett, you won’t be disappointed.

Waiting for Godot photo gallery

Read about the cast and creative team