Waiting for Godot, Norwich Theatre Royal, 11th April 2009.
Well, what can I say? I’m not one to gush, but this was just so utterly fabulous that gushing may be inevitable. After trekking round Norwich in the rain (note to Norwich-dwellers: turning signposts so that they face the wrong way is not funny) you could understand if our spirits has been dampened, but the traditional plush red seats and palpable sense of excitement in the theatre soon helped us forget our damp feet. The set, framed by a particularly fine proscenium arch so that you felt as though you were being given glimpse into another world, was stunningly gothic. A bleak, brick wall made the backdrop, with the ruins of another wall in front. This was a world that no-one cared about, peopled by people that could have been there forever. Estrogen and Vladimir were simultaneously as much part of the landscape as the tree that has thrust its way through the floor, and as incongruous. Ian McKellen’s Gogo enters crawling out of unseen ditch, trembling hands first, followed by Patrick Stewart’s Didi. The two are utterly dependent on each other, and these two giants of the stage shrank to be almost overshadowed by the lowering and unfriendly set. It was easy to believe that these two had spent fifty years in each other’s company, and it quickly became impossible to imagine one without the other. Beckett’s elliptical writing kept them tied to the place and to each other, without an over-arching sense of time to keep them grounded. Their forgetfulness and anxiety keep the audience from ever getting too settled, and I wouldn’t have minded waiting for Godot a whole lot longer, such was the power of these performances.
Simon Callow was wonderful as a rather fruity, booming Pozzo, haranguing the hapless Lucky (Ronald Pickup). Pickup’s long monologue was delivered at such a speed as to be nearly unintelligible, but that is perhaps more a fault of the words themselves than the actor. He was melancholy enough to make McKellen’s lacrimose Gogo seem cheerful, and Lucky’s dancing made the rather decrepit Gogo and Didi look sprightly. McKellen’s Gogo was gruff and grumpy and helpless, deeply dependent on Stewart’s slightly more upbeat Didi, and their mutual affection was very touching. The intrusion of the colourful, brash Pozzo into the monochrome, quietly grumbling, hermetic world of Didi and Gogo was as shocking for the audience as for the characters. The relationship between McKellen and Stewart was so understated and poignant that I resented the interruption to their interminable waiting, as it upset the delicate balance they had created to get through each day. The interaction between the four was masterfully choreographed, and the visual jokes stayed on the right side of slapstick while still making the most of every movement, aided by beautifully sarcastic and caustic inflection. Sean Mathias has created a world that fits seamlessly around Beckett’s words – in this world the repetitive, sometimes nonsensical words fit, and make sense in the mouths of the characters. Paul Groothuis’s sound excellently highlighted the action (if you can call it action), and the piano music was well-chosen. I was not a fan of the comedy sound effects in places, although I must admit that they made me giggle. The inevitability of it all, the vain discussion of suicide, the fact that nothing happens present a huge challenge to a director who has to engage an audience for almost three hours, but this production managed with ease.