Royal Lyceum Theatre: Fri 18 Sept – Sat 10 Oct 2015
Poetry, a deep humanity and a profound understanding of the power of the theatre shine through in the Lyceum’s exemplary Waiting For Godot.
For the opening production of the Lyceum’s 50th anniversary season, outgoing artistic director Mark Thomson has assembled a suitably celebratory cast, with Bill Paterson and Brian Cox in the roles of the two men killing time in the countryside waiting for the mysterious Godot in a play where supposedly ‘nothing happens – twice’.
It seems ridiculous that a sixty-year-old work should still be controversial, but people still make their mind up about it very quickly either way. This production certainly has the potential to change minds, as it comes as close as may be possible to evoking the play’s power.
What can definitely be said of Godot is that it has dated much less than its contemporaries. Its elusive poetry has survived the passage of time with such elegance that the themes now seem eternal.
What each viewer derives from it says more about them than the play itself. If, for example, slavedriving landowner Pozzo now resembles nothing more than a suitably dressed member of an Oxbridge dining club who exploits others while claiming to be doing them a favour, this is down to the timeless universality of the play itself rather than any slant of the production.
One of the worst things that can happen to Godot is to be saddled with a director who knows what it is ‘about’, and director Mark Thomson seems to be refreshingly free of this.
The production is all the better for this lightness of touch. The obvious debt that the bowler-hatted duo owe to Laurel and Hardy is there if you look for it, but never overstressed.
Recent productions – some very high profile – have suffered from being too broad, with actors who should know better straining so hard for laughs that the mystery is lost. This never happens here. It is very funny, but it is also unafraid of slowness. There is a stark, chilly feel to proceedings, enhanced by Mark Doubleday’s lighting and a set by Michael Taylor that evokes both Arctic landscape and prison courtyard. There have also been recent Lyceum productions with noticeably effective sound design, which makes the frequent use of complete silence here all the more striking.
While Vladimir in particular may be afraid of this silence and seek to fill it whenever possible, the two central performers are canny and experienced enough to know its value. Above all, Cox and Paterson are utterly believable as two men who have enjoyed and endured each other’s company for fifty years. Once again, any interpretation you could care to put on their relationship is there if you want it without being overplayed.
Cox’s Vladimir is hugely enjoyable and, like so much of the production, endlessly subtle in how he wears his craft so lightly. For all of his depiction of the physical problems of ageing, he displays an open-faced physicality that makes him oddly childlike. For once, Estragon’s contention that Vladimir is eleven years old seems to make sense.
There is a similar quality to some of Paterson’s Estragon, particularly in the way he subtly and seemingly subconsciously echoes Vladimir’s movements. Paterson also brings years of experience to Estragon, with an object lesson in timing, making every gesture count without ever signposting its importance.
Such high-profile casting can be fraught with danger, but there is never any danger of the performers overshadowing the roles here. A humanity and a humility informs the performances, which are always at the service of the play. The quieter moments still have the tinges of music-hall crosstalk that informs the dialogue, but mutate into a poetry which anyone who still doubts the play’s emotional pull should see as soon as possible.
John Bett’s Pozzo provides an effective contrast with a more strident performance, brittle and blustering but hinting at a deeply insecure core. The character is often played with one-note pomposity, and it is rare for his need for praise to be quite so believable, or for his second-act outbursts to be so loaded with hectoring tragic grandeur.
There is a carefully developed feel to the ensemble, allied to a generosity of spirit that is exemplified by Cox’s interaction with Zak McCullough’s poised, impressive Boy.
Like the other characters, Pozzo’s slave Lucky is a deceptively challenging role. The problem here is that he has to do a great deal without speaking – and when he finally does speak it famously comes in a torrent. Benny Young’s delivery of his speech is tinged with unusual aggression, but does it great justice.
Lucky’s ‘thinking’, when done well, is the quintessential distillation of the experience of theatre. On the page, it looks like nonsense, or perhaps a parody of academic language, but in performance it can become something else entirely, as it does here – a hypnotic tirade that never resolves itself but always seems on the verge not only of making sense, but of reaching some unnameably abstract and frightening truth.
John Bett, Brian Cox, Bill Paterson and Benny Young. Photo Alan McCredie
It is this hinting at something beyond, something elusive that is at the heart of the play’s timeless metaphorical pull. It says something profound about the human condition, but exactly what that is seems to keep shifting. This explains why so much has been written about the play, but it also means that any production that ‘understands’ it can have the same effect as sticking a pin through a butterfly.
Instead, this version surrenders to its unknowable mystery and is all the more poetic and profound for it. A fitting celebration of the talents of all concerned and of the Lyceum Company’s 50th birthday.
Running time 2 hours 50 mins (including interval)
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay Street EH3 9AX
Friday 18 September to Saturday 10 October 2015
Evenings: Tuesdays to Saturdays at 7.30 pm; Matinees Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2.00 pm
Tickets from http://lyceum.org.uk/whats-on/production/waiting-for-godot