Waiting for Godot can be a challenge for all concerned. This is Beckett’s first and most famous play, frequently cited as a benchmark for Absurdist Theatre, and indeed theatre in general. 2003 is the 50th anniversary of the play’s first performance. Audience expectations usually run very high, and stumbling blocks abound for the unwary director: lacking conventional theatrical conflict, a mismanaged Godot can be painfully repetitive. There are minimal sets, and no music in which to hide possible directorial sins. A further challenge is to bring originality into a play in which restrictive stage directions form more than half the text.
I turned up at the Arts Theatre on Monday in a state of mild trepidation. Because of this dual-directed rendition (often a warning sign of Production-Multiple-Personality-Disorder), would I be, “waiting impatiently for a toilet break”? “waiting for an opportunity to yawn politely behind my hand”, perhaps? Or indeed, “waiting for an excuse to slip out of a side door and run screaming down the street”?
Thankfully, at the Arts Theatre I did very little “waiting” indeed, and quite a lot of laughing! Noting the unusual (for the Arts Theatre) and very convenient starting time of 7.30pm, I arrived at 7.15 with what I thought was plenty of time to spare. They seemed very keen to start, and by 7.25 the highly entertaining usher ensured that we were all in our seats and behaving ourselves. Once seated, I quickly became absorbed in the plight of the heroes, the bowler-hatted derelicts Vladimir and Estragon (Paul Fulwood and Nick Gordon), as they spend another day under their tree, “Waiting for night to fall… Waiting for Godot… Waiting for waiting”.
The success of a production of Godot is always partially determined by casting, especially in obtaining a balance and chemistry between the two main characters. Nick and Paul initially strike one as being a trifle young to play elderly bums. Observing them on stage together, however, it quickly becomes easy to ignore this point. Vladimir and Estragon’s co-dependent relationship and their physical and temperamental differences are developed well in this version. It is obvious that these factors have been a priority for directors Natasha Kepper and Paul Sherman.
Nick Gordon plays the amnesic and befuddled Estragon with a surprising genuineness, capturing a sense of isolation in “Gogo” as well as his more humorous side. A terrific physical actor with excellent comic timing, Nick is eminently watchable throughout.
Paul Fulwood’s Vladimir is engaging as he desperately tries to hold onto the threads of his reality and make sense of the world. With the increase in action in Act 2, he certainly warms up (a highlight is his impression of “The Tree”), although I would love to see him do a dramatic character sometime.
While waiting for Godot, Vladimir and Estragon eat carrots (definitely not turnips, but possibly radishes), contemplate suicide, discuss thieves in the Gospels, and conduct interesting micturition rituals. If all this isn’t enough, Beckett throws into the mix Pozzo and Lucky, two distinctive passers-by who definitely aren’t Godot.
Perhaps slightly worryingly, Paul Brown as “Lucky” looks as though he really has been living in his ragged costume for eternity, shackled to the supercilious Pozzo (Sean Dennis). The role requires long periods stationary in strange postures while holding an assortment of items, and also occasional drooling. Paul Brown sustains this challenging character very well. His classic “thinking” speech is a credit to the actor and directors, and is well worth the price of admission alone.
Sean Dennis as Pozzo is suitably sadistic in the first act, while his pompous speeches (and pompous attire) contrast nicely with those of Vladimir and Estragon. His transition to the “alternate blind Pozzo” in Act 2 is slightly uncertain, although it gathers momentum as the scene continues.
Finally, Jak Einicke pops in periodically as “The Boy”, a messenger allegedly from Godot who attempts to keep spirits raised and our Vladimir and Estragon still waiting. Jak is well cast in this role, his character is interesting to watch, and I look forward to seeing more of him in future.
Many recent productions of Godot have emphasised the comic aspects of the play in favour of its existentialism and beautiful bleakness. In places this production walks the “tragi-comedy”/”ham and fun” high-wire, but manages not to fall off, at least not in any major way. A certain rather unusual satellite was a delightful surprise, and didn’t detract from the show in any way.
While the first act of Godot is certainly entertaining, the second half of the play really takes off, with the actors obviously enjoying fisticuffs, falls, and significant floor work. The use of the stage is especially effective in this act, and it all keeps the action coming.
The lighting throughout is simple and effective, while the minimalist sets are perfectly adequate. Backlighting the tree is a nice touch, but I believe a three-dimensional tree would have offered more options to the actors (although I appreciate the difficulty of this due to stage size and Godot being an “early week” play). In all, this production manages to bring originality and freshness to what can be a very restrictive piece of theatre. The production team has obviously spent a good deal of quality time in specific analysis and preparation, and they have an excellent understanding of what makes an audience tick.
So now I suppose I’m, “waiting impatiently for this team to produce the next show for me to enjoy!”
Finally, a highly euphemistic cautionary note: Ladies, Godot is about two-and-a-half hours long, which is great for those wanting a good night out. But the amenities are ahem, cough-cough somewhat malodorous. You may like to think of ‘going’ before you set out for the Arts or else ‘waiting to go’ until you get home.
Letter from the Arts Theatre: Thank you for bringing to our attention the ‘toilet’ situation this has now been rectified”. (2 July 2003)