The Lyceum Theatre is celebrating its 50th year with some special theatrical events, and this production of Samuel Beckett’s acclaimed “Waiting For Godot” is one of them. Directed by Mark Thomson and starring Bill Paterson as Estragon and Brian Cox as Vladimir, this is just a wonderful piece of theatre from two incredible actors bringing to life some of the best lines ever written in modern theatre. With a very sparse stage, pretty much a tree and a rock on a bleak white winter landscape (Michael Taylor design), this is what I call a “nowhere to hide” piece of theatre. There are no distractions on set, all that is here are words and the ability and skill of the actors on stage to bring those words to life and breathe life into the characters. Bill Paterson and Brian Cox do this beautifully and manage to bring out with laughter at times the bleak lives of pain and sorrow that our two main characters lead.
I first encountered this work (like many probably) at school and to be honest, I did not like it then, partly because I just did not understand it (it still puzzles me) and partly because I had at that time some teachers who just failed to bring the words on the pages of books to life.
When I said that I was coming to see this play, the reaction from people was mixed. People either seem to love this work or hate it, there seemed to be no middle ground. This is actually my first time of seeing “Waiting For Godot” live on stage rather than on television, and I am now firmly in the “I like this one” camp.
This work has itself been the subject of so much analysis by people far cleverer than me (and that does not take much some days) and no one yet seems to have the answers to it all (and its creator never seemed to want to truly explain either). This work is a bit like a Russian Babushka doll. You can interpret it on so many levels, and maybe that is why it is such a powerful piece of work as the audience are interpreting so many different things from the one piece of work.
Bill and Brian play our characters beautifully. Vladimir and Estragon are very old friends, they have been together for many years, but neither have anything in this world except one another. Life has been hard to them both – they are homeless, dressed in dirty old clothes, hungry (eating what root vegetables they can find), but as Vladimir clearly states at one point to Estragon “we are not beggars”. Both are intelligent men who think and ponder (when they can remember) on who they are, why they are here, why has life been so cruel to them and sometimes is it time we ended it all.
There is humour here, but not the laughing out loud type of a situation comedy, but the darker humour that life throws at us all. The one thing that is clear is that these two men care deeply for one another and need each other’s company. Vladimir seems very protective of Estragon (who often wakes remembering an earlier life and serious beatings). And there is an incredibly touching moment when Vladimir takes off his coat in the cold to put over the shoulders of his sleeping friend even though this causes him much discomfort himself. Lots of tender little bits like this just highlight what amazing actors are on stage.
There is a bit of a size difference between Estragon and Vladimir and with their hats and worn out clothes they at times reminded me (particularly on some of the tragic humour parts) of those early Laurel and Hardy films. Yes, Stan and Oliver could be funny, but also very touching and caring to one another at times and they too were frequently down on their luck.
Along the day as we wait for Godot we meet the whip carrying gentleman Pozzo (played by John Bett) and his rope bound hamper and suitcase carrying slave (often referred to as just “pig”) Lucky (played by Benny Young). Again wonderful performances from both men. Who are these two and how do they fit into the wait for Godot. That is never really explained. John Bett as the absolutely uncaring Pozzo is wonderfully played here and provides a great counterpoint to the humanity of Estragon and Vladimir. Our poor slave Lucky, who never has yet put down the cases that he is carrying, is on the way to be sold at market, probably says nothing at all until instructed to think, and when he does it is a stream of amazing thoughts. Benny Young’s amazing on-stage memory feat of this long stream of often random thought is amazing to watch.
Who are Pozzo and Lucky though? I am not sure, but to me Pozzo is the establishment, the employer, the abuser of the masses (who cannot do anything for himself without his workers help – even sit down) and Lucky is that downtrodden working class. If there is a message here it is never let the worker stop and put down his burden because if you do they might stop and think. And even worse, you might find out that they can think higher thoughts and might even be the same species as you – a human being and not some sort of animal.
We encounter Pozzo and Lucky again in act two and Pozzo is now unexplainably blind and Lucky is now mute (did he speak too much?).
We also meet on two nights a young boy who tells Vladimir that Godot cannot make it today but will come again tomorrow. Who is the young boy? He seems to know Mr Godot and he has a brother who sleeps in the hay loft with him (the brother is now sick in Act Two). Is the child actually Vladimir as a boy? He is the only one that ever sees him.
There are elements here suggesting that everyone else except Vladimir and Estragon are figments of a dream, but we have Lucky’s hat and a wound he inflicted on Estragon’s leg to consider too.
Godot of course never turns up and our two friends continue to debate the mysteries of life.
Perfect theatre that does not spell out all the answers to the questions raised for you and makes you stop, listen and think. So many questions such as why is Godot an anagram for “To God”. Is that really who our two friends are waiting to come for them?
Try and make is along to The Lyceum for this one. I have no idea which camp you will be in after watching it, but this is one of those works that you really have to go and see to make your own mind up on.