I have to remind myself that Waiting for Godot is a confounding piece of theatre. It’s supposed to be. The famous repudiations Beckett made to its interpreters, the ignorance he professed of its characters, were more than just cryptic obfuscation. ‘The only thing I’m sure of,’ he is said to have said, ‘is that they’re wearing bowlers.’ Likewise his sole description of the set: ‘A country road. A tree.’ All deliberately, maddeningly vague. And the tradition since has often been to treat the play as virtually untouchable, to dismiss any thought of embellishing Beckett’s wasteland with new ideas. So Vladimir and Estragon have always been imagined, by director after director, in bowler hats.
In this production, directed by Simon Dormandy, there are no bowlers; nor does the characters’ dreadful world conform to the bleak featurelessness that usually surrounds them. Instead the dusty vagrants we see are sporting baseball caps and hoodies, and the stage they inhabit is, though dutifully bleak, far from featureless. In a titillatingly shrewd design by Patrick Kinmonth (whose collaboration represents by far the production’s most brilliant coup), the tree where Didi and Gogo wait sprouts stubbornly from a mound of rubble, which seems to have collapsed from the backstage wall. An abandoned demolition? The site of some natural disaster? It is, aptly, inexplicable, demonstrating that a set needn’t be barren to be minimalistic.
Crawling obdurately, like the tree, from this wreckage we are introduced to Estragon, a lugubrious Irishman, and Vladimir, a bespectacled comic book nerd, played respectively by Tom Stourton and Tom Palmer, better known as the young sketch comedy duo Totally Tom. This isn’t the first time Godot has exploited the intimacy of a comedy act, and, watching the pair launch into a swift and dexterous hat swapping sequence worthy of Harpo Marx, it’s easy to see why. The familiarity of their routine suits the characters perfectly, and it is unquestionably their humour that yields the most touching moments in their performances.
Their problem here is that Waiting for Godot is a self-proclaimed tragicomedy, wracked, in its most haunting moments, by panic and futility. The pace of their repartee is unconventionally brisk, and often exhilarating, especially when joined by Jonathan Oliver’s menacing Pozzo – here a deranged, pukka gangster, who enters the theatre, literally, from the East End street. But as the desolation sets in and they pause to observe the silences, the cadence of the play is rendered, at times, awkwardly out of joint and arrhythmic.
On the whole, though, Dormandy’s instinct to cast the comedy duo was a clever piece of chemistry. The invasions into their double act by an older Pozzo and an even older Lucky (played with bewildered brilliance by Michael Roberts), creates a pleasing generational symmetry on stage, without which the formula could not work. And if, in their natural inclination to be funny, Palmer and Stourton compromise some of that essential pathos and existential despair so integral to the play, so what? Sometimes, just occasionally, Waiting for Godot could do with a little less existential despair.
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