This article was originally published in The Daily Pulp on January 13, 2014.
The Cort Theatre is a fairly small Broadway establishment, with crumbling exterior walls and smoke-damaged paintings inside the theatre’s main room. Yet its small size and dilapidated features work to the advantage of the new revival of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, which felt like a most intimate theatrical production. The undersized theatre brings the audience practically on top of the performers – sitting in the audience, staring into the eerie wasteland inhabited by stars Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, you feel very much a part of the strange proceedings.
Waiting for Godot’s plot structure is by now iconic. Two men, Vladimir (Stewart) and Estragon (McKellen), both dressed vaguely like Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, sit next to a tree by the side of a road and wait for a man named Godot, who might be able to help them. (We never learn why they need help.) They return every day at the same time to wait. A slaveowner, Pozzo (Shuler Hensley), and his slave, Lucky (Billy Crudup), pass by, providing some entertainment, but they always leave. Although Godot daily sends a young messenger boy, who promises Godot’s eventual arrival, Godot himself never appears. The cycle repeats itself in both Acts I and II, suggesting that these men are trapped forever in this place. Are they in hell? Is Godot (pronounced “God-oh”) God himself? Does Godot represent freedom, or dreams, or wealth? Is Godot just Vladimir and Estragon’s landlord? The audience never gets conclusive answers.
Beckett’s self-described “tragicomedy” is the pinnacle of modernist absurdity. It is modernist in the sense that it alludes to and riffs on various comic archetypes (the Little Tramp, slapstick routines) and features extended monologues emphasizing the subjectivity of memory and speech. It is also absurd because we learn so little about the characters, their environs, their background, the vaguely postapocalyptic mood, and the reason the entire play happens. Why do Vladimir and Estragon need Godot to save them? How many times has the cycle repeated itself? The set-up is perplexing and experimental, breaking that classical theatre rule that onstage conflicts should somehow be resolved.
But the show is also modernist in that, despite the absurd set-up, the play is not devoid of theme or meaning. (This is not postmodernism, which describes an absence of fixed meaning in the world.) Rather, Godot emphasizes, in the end, the need for humans to create meaning in their lives, especially in the face of hardship and a bizarre universe. This theme provides consolation to the audience after three hours of bizarre antics, even though viewers will never truly understand Vladimir and Estragon.
This production is, of course, a star vehicle for Stewart and McKellen, who are performing Beckett’s Godot in repertory with Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land. The two actors are well known from their film franchises appearances and distinguished work in many award-winning dramas, as well as their illustrious stage careers. What is revelatory about Godot, however, is that we discover just how funny these two actors are. As they cavort, jest, swap hats at high speed, make erection and urination jokes, cuddle, trick, and collapse on top of each other, Stewart and McKellen prove they will do anything for a laugh. Is some of this self-indulgent? A bit, yes. Nonetheless, this production of Godot is a world-class achievement of physical and verbal comedy, and the show introduces the hitherto unknown comic capabilities of Sirs Stewart and McKellen.
As Estragon, McKellen hunches his shoulders and wobbles around the stage like some sort of arthritic caveman. He turns the slightest physical movement, such as pulling off a boot, into what seems like a superhuman (and therefore hilarious) effort. If he and Stewart are mimicking old-time comedy teams like Abbot & Costello, then McKellen is the Costello figure – sleepy, eternally befuddled, and existing only in the present, focused on whatever aches and pains he currently feels. But McKellen also suggests that Estragon is becoming a bit mentally infirm, as in the early days of dementia. McKellen’s Estragon therefore manages to be both a bizarre creature and a pitiable figure.
As Vladimir, Stewart is the Bud Abbot figure – smarter and a wiseass, although not nearly as smart as he thinks he is. Stewart walks about stiffly in Act I, like a stern martinet, and he clearly enjoys pulling pranks on the easily confused Estragon. As time passes, though, Vladimir reveals himself to be an emotionally broad figure, capable of true tenderness toward his friend Estragon (eliciting many “Awws” from the audience), silly humor, and despair. Stewart even engages in some decent music hall singing and soft-shoe dancing at the top of Act II. At the end of Act II, it is Stewart who provides the play’s moral. Realizing that he will always be stuck, waiting for Godot, Vladimir panics, demanding that the messenger boy admit that he sees Vladimir. In other words, all Vladimir wants, in the face of an uncaring universe, is to be recognized as a real person. But with Godot eternally absent, Vladimir turns back to Estragon. Stewart’s range of emotions in this final scene makes it clear that, even if the universe screws us over, at least we have friends to rely on.
The show is also admirable for not superimposing any major allegorical elements onto the show. Rather than trying to make Godot into something obvious or specific, director Sean Mathias and his actors take the abstract text at face value. The tree is just a tree. Godot is just an absent man. This rejection of specificity moves the comic elements of the play to the forefront and reinforces the theater of the absurd motif.
Still, the production is not perfect. Billy Crudup gives an impressive physical performance as Lucky in Act I, constantly moving and contorting his body and presenting Lucky as a bundle of nervous energy. However, Lucky’s rant near the end of Act I, which is meant to be an explosive cry of rage and frustration, comes off simply as humorous and neurotic. This is a fundamental misreading of the character, even though Crudup’s bravura physical mannerisms are to be commended. Similarly, Shuler Hensley’s Pozzo feels slightly off. Hensley does a fine job making Pozzo a blustering blowhard in Act I and then making Pozzo pitiable when the man goes blind in Act II. Unfortunately, Hensley’s bluster in Act I gets monotonous after a while – I saw many audience members nodding off during Pozzo’s interminable time onstage. (I will not comment whether or not I nodded off.)
The cavernous set displayed onstage is also problematic. I understand that the theatre of the absurd is meant to have ambiguous settings, but the set for this Godot is overly distracting and heavy-handedly ambiguous. The tree and the ditch upstage suggest an outdoor area, but the crumbling towers, trapdoors, and uneven wooden floorboards downstage suggest an interior environment, perhaps even an abandoned theatre. So are the tramps inside or outside? At times, I found myself focusing on and trying to understand the complex scenery more than I was focusing on the actors. I think the production team would have done better to simplify the set, as in the script – just show a road with a ditch and a tree, never mind any vague interiors – than to create this deliberately perplexing set. Plainer scenery would have also kept with the production’s overall intent of downplaying allegory and just reading the text straight.
Finally, as I mentioned earlier, Act One drags far too much during the appearance of Pozzo and Lucky. At the risk of sounding like a literary heretic, I think director Sean Mathias should have cut a few lines here to speed up the pace of the act. Act II flows very well, though, so I am not sure if the problem in Act I lies in Beckett’s script or Mathias’s direction. I am inclined to blame Mathias, since the play’s text is a masterpiece of literary invention. (Beckett didn’t win a Nobel Prize for nothing.)
Despite these flaws, the cast is, for the most part, in command of this outré material and acts the hell out of it. The show reintroduces Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart as comics of the highest order and serves as a fresh, fun new production of Beckett’s classic.
Final Verdict: 3.5/4 stars (but with 4-star acting for McKellen and Stewart).
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