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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Theatre Royal Haymarket


  Ian McKellen and Roger Rees/Ph: Sasha Gusov

Sean Mathias’ production and Stephen Brimson Lewis’ design sets Beckett’s masterpiece in a dilapidated theatre framed by a crumbling proscenium arch. And instead of that bare tree hanging on to life by the side of a country road as the author’s stage directions have it, it is poking up through the shattered floorboards of a stage.
It is as if Sirs Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart were deemed not quite enough of a box-office draw on their own. So Samuel Beckett’s bleakness has been given a post-apocalyptic spin. This is still Beckett, but West End style.
There have been some changes since this production was first seen last May. Roger Rees has taken over from Patrick Stewart, and that increasingly impressive Matthew Kelly, who was once much better known in Britain as the presenter of a trashy TV show, replaces Simon Callow as the cruel, then-blind Pozzo.
Gone are the comedy “boings” every time Pozzo painfully sits on his stool.  And whereas Callow brought to mind a circus ringmaster, Kelly is more screen villain from the silent era. A gaunt and ghostly Ronald Pickup remains as Pozzo’s dumb and then loquacious slave Lucky, though with a larger repertoire of facial ticks and expressions to communicate his suffering.
The theatre setting, and admittedly some of the text, suggests the two tramps were once a music-hall double act. They go about their business of nothing in particular with faded memories of better times and old dance routines. It is an over-interpretation. But that is better than misinterpretation.
The play’s economy has been known to tempt directors into adding extra layers of significance. In the days of apartheid, Winston Ntshona and John Kani brought their South African version to London in which Pozzo was a white Afrikaner among black Africans, which might have said a lot about the condition of black people in white-ruled South Africa, but obscured the point that all humans are waiting for something; and for that something to save us; and in the saving, for our lives to have meaning.
The usually excellent Stewart has been knighted since this production's first run. But it would not have been for his rather glazed, unmoving Vladimir. Rees’ much more interesting version is an optimist whose reservoir of optimism is down to its last dregs.
Although Rees has forged a successful career in American television (he was Lord John Marbury in The West Wing) he is remembered here chiefly for the title role performance in the RSC’s adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby. I was a teenager when I saw it. I remember doubting what seemed to me to be Rees’ exaggerated earnestness in the role. But looking back, no performance has remained more vividly in the memory than that one. And it will be a long time before I forget his upbeat Didi, the stiff upper lip faltering every time he senses the void.
Yet it is McKellen who still delivers the outstanding performance here. For my money it is more nuanced, finer tuned, just down right better than even his Lear. This is a Godot  bruised and bewildered by his own existence.  When he is cruel, he is pathetically ineffectual; when he is in pain he is achingly vulnerable; and when he wants to be, he is extremely funny. If Godot had an ounce of compassion he would end the waiting.

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