Spoiler alert: Godot – whoever or whatever he may be – never comes in Waiting for Godot. Thankfully, Sean Mathias’ ultra-vaudevillian approach to Samuel Beckett’s 1953 masterpiece makes the two and a half hours we spend waiting for this now-inevitable conclusion pass a lot more quickly than one might expect. It’s true that theatergoers who relish this play for its core of existential despair might feel a bit shortchanged by the production’s lighter tone, but there’s “nothing to be done” about that except to sit back and watch four top-notch actors at work.
Once again, we’re on that desolate country road populated only by a looming tree (all evocatively rendered by designer Stephen Brimson Lewis), when the hobo-like Vladimir (Patrick Stewart) and Estragon (Ian McKellen) suddenly appear. Soon enough, these two lifelong friends – and perhaps even lovers – begin their daily routine of verbal sparring, nonsensical conversation, and discussions of suicide or abandonment, all of which are seemingly utilized to pass the time until the mysterious Godot once again disappoints them by not keeping his so-called scheduled appointment. In both acts, however, the pair receives an unexpected diversion, thanks to the sudden appearance of the cruel Pozzo (Shuler Hensley) and his beleaguered servant Lucky (Billy Crudup).
What can be a wearying, meandering interlude (for us, if not them) turns out to be deliciously entertaining. In large part, that’s due to McKellen’s masterful performance, in which the legendary British actor uses every glance, gesture and inflection at his disposal to make us laugh (or cry), while also illuminating the deeper meaning of the text. It’s a physically fearless performance as well (especially given McKellen’s age), with the occasional roll-on-the-ground or emergence from a ditch. Most importantly, though, it’s one with great heart. Even when he threatens to leave Vladimir, one senses that he would do so only because he truly feels it would make his friend’s life better.
Stewart is clearly the straight man here (in every sense of the word), never quite matching McKellen’s innovative approach to Beckett’s wordplay. Still, he expertly captures the bone-deep bond between the two men, letting us know that while Vladimir might welcome death (whether by tree-hanging or not), he would never accept it without Estragon by his side.
Hensley’s first appearance as the larger-than-life Pozzo is both jarring in the way Beckett intended (as a true life force) and a little unsettling. His broad Southern accent and booming voice makes it seem as if Big Daddy has accidentally wandered in from Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. But Hensley all-too-quickly makes a three-course meal of this self-centered blowhard in Act One, and then gains our sympathy when he returns later on in a far more damaged state. Crudup, for his part, is simply shattering as the seemingly mute, emotionally and physically abused Lucky, who erupts into a torrent of verbiage that is almost the equivalent of a primal scream.
All four thespians’ transformation in No Man’s Land (playing in repertory with Godot) may be the best single reason to see both pieces, unless Harold Pinter’s odd comedy-of-menace is your proverbial cup of tea. Here, Stewart seems more in his natural element as Hirst, the aristocratic poet who has brought home Spooner (McKellen), a slightly shabby yet erudite man he’s met for the first time at a pub in Hampstead Heath.
Speaking in that mellifluous voice and seated in an oversized armchair like Alastair Cooke, Stewart instantly projects a man of the upper class full of bonhomie and an air of “noblesse oblige” as he offers Spooner drink after drink (taking one for himself), toasting each time to the other’s good health.
But here’s Pinter’s game: Is it really the first time these men have crossed paths? The alcoholic, eccentric or even possibly insane Hirst – attended to by his mysterious caretakers Briggs (Hensley) and Foster (a thoroughly sublime, pitch-perfect Crudup) – claims during Act One to have no idea who the stranger in his palatial home is. But then in Act Two, Hirst seems thoroughly convinced that the other man is a fellow man of letters and former Oxford classmate – one whom he cuckolded yet nonetheless remains quite fond of.
And no matter what Hirst says or does, Spooner – obviously desperate for the other man’s approval (and possible employment) – returns the ball like an ace tennis player, ready with the appropriate verbal backhand or drop shot. And once again, McKellen offers a delectably varied performance that is inherently truthful, yet keeps us completely on our toes and off-guard. Game, set, match!