Waiting for Godot (Lyceum: 18 September – 10 October ’15)

Bill Paterson and Bian Cox as Estragon and Vladimir. Photos by Alan McCredie.

Bill Paterson and Bian Cox as Estragon and Vladimir.
Photos by Alan McCredie.

“Magic and compassionate”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars  Outstanding

A production dedicated to the memory of Kenny Ireland (1945 – 2014), artistic director of the Royal Lyceum Theatre Company from 1992 to 2003.

It’s celebratory. 50 years of the Lyceum Theatre Company and 50 years, thereabouts, that Vladimir and Estragon reckon that they’ve been together. It’s always nice to be definite about those two, as over the years they’ve acquired a reputation for being as equivocal and as moot as Monsieur Godet, Godot, or Godin, himself. Well, not any more, for this indelible production of Samuel Beckett’s famous play nails them as surely as any I’ve seen – and that includes the Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart show of 2009. I’m in complete agreement with Gogo (Estragon) when he says ‘They all change. Only we can’t’.

It is probably Didi’s pee stained trousers that did it. For a play that elsewhere is often taken as an exhibition piece for metaphor, where the grave digger puts on the forceps, etc., here a weak bladder in a sixty-two year old man is a weak bladder and that’s that. Gogo’s boots stink, his feet are putrid, and every time that he is reminded that they’re waiting for Godot he stiffens in a gut churning, stomach cramped response. It is unsurprising then that the here and now – the blasted tree on the bleached cold set, the vicious kicks to the hapless Lucky – is ‘kackon country’.

And there’s the marvel: one shitty situation made bearable by kindness and affection, because that is what the magic, compassionate, pairing of Brian Cox and Bill Paterson achieves. Cox plays Vladimir as philosopher clown, constrained to smile rather than laugh. Paterson as Estragon has the pallor to match his delivery. It would be deadpan were it not so forlorn. And it would, of course, be a Laurel and Hardy tribute act were it not for the existential, timeless, pitch and spin of the dialogue. There’s that moment, early in Act 1, when Vladimir is telling the story of the two thieves crucified alongside Christ and Estragon is seriously unimpressed by the ‘Saviour’ word. Didi just wants his story listened to and Cox makes light of his exasperation with a gentle, relaxed ‘Come on, Gogo, return the ball, can’t you, once in a way?’ The half crouch and the outstretched hands look to be off the rugby field to me, which is neat (and topical). Funny too how easily Beckett’s language adapts to Scottish performance for there’s a near constant exchange between blethering and ‘discourse’ that is practically endearing and is certainly comic.

This is not bleak end-gamed Beckett. Take Estragon’s sudden ‘Que voulez-vous?’ that arrests another of their little riffs. That could be a surly or desperate, ‘What do you want?’, but actually it’s much more generous and appealing than that. ‘What do you know [of me]?’ is what Mark Thomson, as director, answers and so two preposterous, hopeless down-and-outs from somewhere wasted and foreign, acquire an extraordinary humanity that fetches warm-hearted laughter from their audience. They might have finished themselves off years ago ‘hand in hand off the top of the Eiffel Tower’ but too late for that now. Instead, we hear of Gogo and Didi picking grapes in Burgundy and Didi rescuing his friend from a suicidal dive into the Rhone.

John Bett as Pozzo (l) and Benny Young as Lucky (r)

John Bett as Pozzo (l) and Benny Young as Lucky (r)

So the blaring inhumanity of the nihilist Pozzo (John Bett) towards Lucky (Benny Young) is made all the more pronounced. These two are truly displaced, dispossessed, and bound. The rope between them just gets shorter as they become increasingly helpless and incoherent. As they collapse, Estragon’s spirits rise and he is almost cheerful. Paterson has that wonderful line: ‘We’ll go to the Pyrenees .. I’ve always wanted to wander in the Pyrenees’.

Yes, it is a question of make-believe and tone but this Godot stands in the light at the mouth of the tunnel and turns its back on the darkness beyond. I found it really illuminating.

(And, ‘cos it’s good and relevant, go to the BBC’s Today programme on http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p031g8l1 to hear a magisterial Michael Billington explain why Waiting for Godot is not in his list of ‘101 Greatest Plays’. Actor Lisa Dwan will have none of it.)




Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 22 September)

Go to Waiting for Godot at the Lyceum here.

Visit the The Lyceum archive.