Monday, April 13, 2009

Worth The Wait

Last Wednesday evening finds Old Dive the Samuel Beckett fanboy sitting, tense with excited anticipation in the middle of the third row, around ten feet from the front of the stage at Norwich's beautifully refurbished Theatre Royal.

I am waiting for the start of one of my very favourite plays. I've seen eight productions since we made a mess of it in the sixth form at school, but this promises to be the dream team production and it doesn't disappoint.

Samuel Beckett's glorious Waiting For Godot, with Patrick Stewart as Vladimir and Sir Ian Mc.Kellen as Estragon.

I mean Holy crap! What's not to love? The most wonderful play ever written about the comedy and despair of the human condition, starring a couple who were born to play Vladimir and Estragon and who have just reached the perfect age to do so.

I won't bother going through these guys' stage, cinema and tv history; we all know and love them.

Suffice to say that Sir Ian Mc.Kellen and Patrick Stewart are both blessed with THE VOICE and at seventy and sixty-eight years old respectively at last have the gravitas and credibility to play these two fabulous rôles.
They are at the peak of their powers and - like Didi and Gogo - have been building a genuine relationship for fifty years in some truly wonderful plays.

So … The curtain rises …
How did they do?

Godot is a very easy play to get spectacularly wrong. All eight productions I have seen have been wildly different.
A lot of productions go for the easy option and play it for laughs.
Which is fine as far as it goes, as Beckett has written a gutbustingly hilarious script.

But that is only half of it.
From around 500BC and the first Greek theatre, the masks of comedy and tragedy have been inseparable and this play needs them both in perfect balance.

One particular production - and a very good one - eschewed the comedy altogether, making the funny lines bitter or wistful and omitting the slapstick routines Didi and Gogo have developed over fifty years of life on the road together.
The result was overpoweringly bleak. Hugely impressive, but not the most fun I've ever had in a theatre.

The Guardian theatre critic must have been a fan of that particular production as he criticised Mc.Kellen and Stewart (mildly in an otherwise rave review) for "playing it for laughs" in the first act.

I find their double act perfect.
To feel the full tragedy; the shock, horror and devastation of the latter parts of the play, you need to build up sympathy for Didi and Gogo and this production has, in my view, given us the perfect Godot.

The set is reassuringly dark and bleak, with the tree bare for the first half of the play … the pitiful display of leaves that bedeck its broken branches as the second act opens betokening the pathetic hope life gives us a moment before dashing it away.

But the first act …
Mc.Kellen clambers painfully and slowly - as befits a seventy year old man - over a pile of masonry rubble and enters the stage; sits, exhausted and tries forlornly - and with little success - to remove the remains of his boots from his swollen and bloody feet.
Enter Patrick Stewart as an only slightly more dapper Vladimir and we are off.
Their rapport is instant and marvellous to behold.
Like an old married couple who have long ago forgotten why they married in the first place they bicker, fight, make up and bicker again. They are the most believable and instantly lovable Didi and Gogo I have ever seen.

The audience erupts into gales of helpless laughter. Mc.Kellen and Stewart turn out to be a classic and wonderful comedy double act, yet through the sheer class of their acting the pain and despair of the two protagonists is constantly there, nagging at us as we roar with mirth, both with them and at their misfortune.

Being as close to the actors as if they are here in my living room with me is amazing. Although Vladimir and Estragon are completely alone in their desolation, some audience interaction is inevitable and there are several instances of eye contact with them both; one in particular, where Mc.Kellen sits musing and gazing out over "the fog" that is the audience, he catches my eye and keeps it for a long, long time. There is such an intensity, such a sparkle in the old charmer's gaze that I am transfixed. He's still a seductive old bugger at seventy!

There is indeed a magic about both of them; in the programme notes I had read over coffee in the upstairs restaurant beforehand while studying my old script, they had discussed how they approached the rôles. There was reverence there, but also a determination to make this Godot their own. Not as two individuals, Vladimir and Estragon, but as a cohesive and inseparable whole.
They succeeded spectacularly.

One passage in particular, shortly before the first arrival of Pozzo and Lucky is so tricky to get right and can often appear crass:

Vladimir: What do we do now?

Estragon: Wait.

Vladimir: Yes, but while we're waiting.

Estragon: What about hanging ourselves?

Vladimir: Hmm. It'd give us an erection!

Estragon: (highly excited) An erection!

Vladimir: With all that follows. Where it falls mandrakes grow. That's why they shriek when you pull them up. Did you not know that?

Estragon: Let's hang ourselves immediately!

Mc.Kellen and Stewart play this with such a rush of pure, innocent, childlike wonder it is marvellous to behold. A pair of old, old men, careworn and hopeless seeing a glimpse of light in the darkness; the opportunity for one last erection and then blissful oblivion …
But of course it - like all hope - fades …

I've seen that played straight, played for laughs, played cringe-inducingly badly, but with Mc.Kellen and Stewart at last I really believe it.
And they keep it up (no pun intended) for the full two and a half hours.

Of course even a top-drawer Vladimir and Estragon can see all their work ruined by a poor Pozzo and Lucky.
No so here.
The casting for this production is peerless.
Simon Callow plays the rôle of his life as Pozzo. He takes the part of the casually vicious, Stalinesque buffoon and plays it to the hilt as the monstrous ringmaster of his own hideous freak show.
An explosion of light and colour and noise and brutal violence against the grey but cheerful innocence of what's gone before; he is shockingly good.

And cowering, half-dead at the other end of the rope in mute submissive resignation is Ronald Pickup as Lucky.

I've seen him play Beckett before and I knew he would be good, but he is simply astonishing.
His breathless, rabid, bespittled and totally insane "in spite of the tennis" monologue/diatribe shakes the audience with its intensity; he starts stark raving mad and gets more psychotic by the second, building to such a frenzied climax that - as Vladimir siezes his "speaking hat", wrenching it from his head and Lucky freezes, wild-eyed and staring blindly out at us, drool running down his front - there are five long seconds of dead silence and stillness and then - as he collapses - the auditorium erupts in a thoroughly deserved and prolonged ovation while poor Ronald lays prostrate and exhausted at the front of the stage.

I am not usually a fan of spontaneous applause during a play, but this is the first of many on the night and every one brings a twinkle to the eye and the twitch of a grin to the corner of the mouth of the cast.
They are brilliant and they know it.

The first half is perfect, but the second even better.

Mc.Kellen and Stewart are just as funny, sparking off one another, totally believable as Didi and Gogo but suddenly the laughs are uncomfortable; the humour the deepest black.

The false hope of the leaves on the tree is about to be dashed and our whole world will tumble, crashing around us in bitter ruin.
They have indeed played it for laughs quite deliberately, but only to set us up for the fall.

The slow-dawning realisation of the hopelessness and despair of our heroes' purgatorial dilemma creeps like dread out over the audience and freezes our hearts.

When it comes to the climax it is shattering.
Pozzo's shocking blindness. The horror of knowing that there but for the grace of God-knows-what go Didi and Gogo; how close Vladimir might have come to the tyranny of Pozzo and Estragon to the Hellish hopelessness of Lucky.

As Lucky lays unconscious, with Mc.Kellen administering a shockingly violent and realistic kicking to his unresisting body we are aghast!

And then comes the truth …
The stage is quiet and dark; Pozzo and Lucky have once again departed as we wait for the inevitable appearance of the Boy with his never-changing message.
Estragon sits, nodding off in utterly exhausted despair and Vladimir wanders the stage, bereft; his soliloquy on the human condition made all the more poignant and heartbreaking by the laughter that has preceded it and set us up for this devastating sucker punch.
We knew it was coming and willingly walked right into it.
Tears sting my eyes and pour down my cheeks. As they do those of everyone present.

And at the last, just before Didi and Gogo turn to go but realise they never can, they try once again to hang themselves but - inevitably - the wretched piece of rope that had been Estragon's belt snaps in half and Mc.Kellen's trousers drop around his ankles.

But we do not laugh … We cannot laugh any more.

There they stand …


A huge standing ovation goes on and on, with three curtain calls for the cast, variously and all together (including a very fortunate local schoolboy as the Boy) and then Stewart and Mc.Kellen return once more and give us a music hall dance routine, juggle with their hats, strike a pose and are gone …

Like Vladimir and Estragon in their interminable and unreasoning wait for Godot I have waited fifty years to see this production.
However long I live I'll never see a better one.

It is still touring.
If you get the faintest chance of a ticket, take it!
You must see this production.
It truly deserves the classic review: "You'll laugh; you'll cry; it'll change your life".

Apologies to Sir. Ian Mc.Kellen for nicking some of these photos from his website.


savannah said...

This has to be one of the best reviews I've ever read, Sugar! If this production comes to the States, I just might have to fly to wherever it's playing! Thank You! xoxox

dive said...

Very kind of you, Savannah.
The production is indeed breathtakingly brilliant.

lynn said...

I was marvelling at you being allowed to take photos! Gosh Dive you're pretty brave nicking those. I wouldn't have done. Word of warning: I've seen people charged a lot (and I mean a lot) for using pics like that without permission. Sorry to be a party pooper but I'd hate to have known and said nothing.

I'd love to have seen that. One of my favourite plays too. Sounds marvellous; so glad you had a good time.

dive said...

I wasn't allowed to take photos, Lynn, so I kinda borrowed the only ones I could find.
You can still see the play; it's still touring, though I'd imagine tickets are like gold dust.

lynn said...

I know, Dive, silly. You'd said that already! I'm merely warning that it can go quite horribly wrong, taking such photos. Just thinking of you, dear. xx

lynn said...

Taking photos from websites I mean. Phew. Hope I'm clear now. lol.

dive said...

Er … painfully, Lynn.

Scout said...

What a fantastic review, Dive. You have revealed yet another skill.

Sitting close to the stage is the only way to see a live production.

Petrea said...

You're breaking my heart. My favorite play. Who could do it better? These two actors have known each other as long as Vladimir and Estragon have.

If you ever get the chance to see John Barton's videos entitled "Playing Shakespeare," check them out. You'll see many of your favorite RSC actors (now stars) who were his students when they were young. McKellen, Stewart and many more are in those videos.

I did wonder where you'd gotten those shots. I'd have kicked you out of the theater if you'd brought in your camera...

mark said...

What a fabulous experience that must have been. Patrick Stewart is a great actor and one of my all time favorites. He has stood the test of time and his work speaks volumes. I would have so loved to see that performance in person. The UK has produced some incredible actors and actresses. Patrick Stewart reminds me a bit of one of my all time favorite actors, James Mason. Both had(have) the utmost respect for their profession. Professional in every way. I want to see this play in the worst way. Great post Dive. Thanks for the review. What an evening that must have been.

Shan said...

I now feel like I've missed out on something huge having never seen that play before. Both of those actors are just incredible, though it was John Luke Pickard that I had a crush on through his whole Star Trek career. ;)

You described it perfectly Dive! Actually I don't even know if I could handle it if I did ever see it!! Sounds like bottled raw emotion toward the end. Wow.

Petrea said...

See it, Shan, even if you don't get to see McKellan and Stewart in it. But do try to see a professional (Equity) production. There's no other play like it, nothing compares.

Katie said...

Wow, I can't believe that you got to see this play, with this cast, in that 3rd row seat! And actual eye contact? You're killing me! I'm so unbelievably jealous. I've only ever seen Godot in French, when I was in Paris when I was 20. I'm sure a lot of the French was lost on me, and I was way too young to appreciate this play. It's probably good that you've seen so many productions, so that there's no question that this was the be-all and end-all performance of Godot. Thank you so much for you review; if nothing else we get to share in just a bit of the amazing performance that you got to see.

dive said...

Thank you, Robyn. Yes, it was wonderful to be so close and to see every little expression on their faces.

Petrea: I wish you'd been there. It was indeed the ultimate Godot.
I'll check out those Playing Shakespeare videos, if only to marvel at how young everyone looks. Mc.Kellen and Stewart do indeed go back fifty years and that shared experience and friendship is something you cannot fake and which made their Didi and Gogo so magical and believable (and their age, too, of course).
As for their voices … Mmmmmmm.

Mark: A great evening indeed, and one that I shall always remember.
Ah, James Mason! He was such a delight; whatever rôle he played he played it as James Mason, which was wonderful to see.
And another classic voice.

Shan: I missed out on the Jean-Luc Picard years as I didn't have a TV, but I've caught a few of them since. They were great, but they were not "Star Trek" as they had a budget, proper scripts and real actors, and they were genuinely good rather than endearingly crap, which kinda spoiled it for me Hee hee.

As Petrea says, you really must see a decent production of Godot. It is indeed bottled, raw emotion but exhilarating. It is the best play not written by Shakespeare and indeed is better than many of his. All human life is there and you can interpret the play in a million ways (even Christian readings).

Petrea: I second that.

Katie: You saw it in French? Wow! Beckett wrote it in French, and it played there and in Germany before it ever got to England. Lucky you! Though yes, you were definitely too young to grasp anything but the basics of the play. I cringe at the memories of our school production and the way that students have of knowing everything when in fact they know nothing.
As with Petrea, I wish you'd been there.

Cynthia said...

That is the most amazing review of a play I've ever read; you are quite remarkable and a wonderful writer. What a treat to see McKellen and Stewart their prime! Lucky you.

dive said...

Cynthia, you are too, too kind. I merely wrote what I saw and felt. It was a truly special evening and one that I shall always remember, even when I too, hopefully reach my prime.

Lucio said...

A very evocative and enticing review, Dive. Well done!

It strikes me that Beckett is perfectly suited to the British school of acting, which pivots on a truly bewitching paradox: an inward-turning use "the voice", which is also turned outward in the most spectacular and, at times, heart-rending way - especially by actors of a certain vintage. And, when what happens is actually what doesn't happen, is there a better way of conveying the agony of collective existential angst than with voices that turn inward like a scalpel and outward like impeccably tuned, but chronically mournful, instruments?

As for your "unsanctioned" use of the photos, I am of the opinion that anyone using the internet as a publishing (or promotional) medium should not be disingenuous about the fact that their material can, and probably will, be used by others without their permission. It's a case of "publisher beware", and anyone who thinks otherwise is basing their objections on principles which were barely enforceable in the pre-digital age! At least you had the courtesy to acknowledge where you nicked them from. Not all do.

PS This wasn't a dig at you, Lynn (you have every right to your opinion), or a defense of you, Dive (you are perfectly capable of defending yourself), merely my debatable two cent's worth on the subject. ... {:-})

Lucio said...

... use *of* "the voice" ...

dive said...

Ah, Lucio. A wonderful insight on the use of the voice.

"Existential angst" was the one phrase I had to fight really hard not to use; I wanted to write the only review of Godot ever written without it. Hee hee.

Yes, Beckett is perfect for English classical actors of a certain age; I hope I manage to live long enough to do my own version of Krapp's Last Tape, another favourite; though of course I do not possess "the voice"; merely "a voice".

If anyone objects to my use of Sir. Ian's photos I shall of course remove them, but I thought it might help set the atmosphere and illuminate what I had written if you could see some of what I saw.

lynn said...

Not at all Lucio, no digs inferred!

No, no, I wish it were the case as you state, absolutely. I'm not stating my opinion, I'm stating the law, which is far more scary. I've seen people prosecuted for use of website photos without permission and it wasn't a pretty sight, even though it was - as Dive rightly says - for the positive publicity of the play! Just thought I'd put out the warning that's all. It is the law - and people do use it - not an opinion. If I had an opinion, it would be the same as yours Lucio! :)

lynn said...

... and the person I had the misfortune to observe also offered to remove them, but the case went ahead.

lynn said...

I feel like a real pooper here. I don't mean to be at all. Your writing Dive is superb, as always. I LOVE it, I love the photos, everything. Just sayin... :) take care.

Lucio said...

I was going to ensconce that dreaded phrase within a set of quotation marks - then, at the last minute, forgot to. It's the kind of negligence that occurs more and more frequently as one gets closer and closer to becoming a gent of, um, "a certain vintage".

Lucio said...

Lynn; I believe that, in the end, common sense will prevail in the ye olde worlde of copyright law (which seems to be lagging behind bona fide reality by at least twenty years), and that mere opinions such as ours will take precedence over legislation which, as I said, cannot be enforced in any significant way - only in ways that highlight its absurdity in the current cultural and technological climate.

dive said...

I'll remove the photos on Thursday, Lynn, when I'm working from home and have the time.

Ah, another dreaded phrase, Lucio! You are fortunate in that I shall become a gent of a certain vintage some time before you.

Lucio said...

Dive: I'm looking forward to being * *** ** * ******* *******. By then, my age will have caught up with the colour of my hair. ... Besides, I'm only a handful of summers behind you.

dive said...

Reassuringly for both of us, Lucio, age really does bring wisdom; the dilemma being that it also brings forgetfulness and I am finding myself regrettably far more forgetful than wise.
Hey ho.

Lucio said...

Then it's a good thing that a goodly part of wisdom is the ability to forget. ... Pity the only thing that really does have a mind of its own is your mind, which never seems to want to forget or remember the way you'd prefer it to!

dive said...

Splendidly put, Lucio.

I must have insulted my mind in some unforgivable way as it has been treating me with abominable cruelty of late.

Lupine Lady said...

Dive, if you do remove the photos, be sure to include the web access to them. They really do complete your wonderful description of this extraordinary evening. My guess is that since you're not using them to profit in some way, it's okay. In fact, if I were in England I'd make haste to try to see Godot, partly based on the photos. Thanks again for your great writing.

dive said...

I'll be sure and do that, Lupine Lady. Thank you.

lynn said...

Lupine Lady is right, that profiting from use is far more serious. However I have seen it happen, honestly I have Lucio.

Dive darling please do not remove the pics on my account - I love to see them here but what I wouldn't want is you sued. How about emailing him and asking permission and in the interim linking his website where we can all see them? Please I do hope you don't imagine that I personally object: I really don't. They are not my photos! I'm thinking of you x

dive said...

Oh, for goodness sake! I'll take them off as soon as I get the chance.
I know we live in a ludicrously litigious society so I'll steer clear of posting anything like this again.

lynn said...

... I'll keep quiet in future.

dive said...

I know you have my best interests at heart, Lynn; I'm not criticising, it's just that I can't really go re-editing the piece here at work; it'll have to wait until I have time at home.

from cali said...

If you do edit this piece I am glad I got to read and see it as originally posted. You really made the experience come alive for your readers. Bravo!

Petrea said...

The videos of "Playing Shakespeare" aren't easy to find in the states. You might find them at a library. There's also a book by John Barton that follows the action. The players include Peggy Ashcroft, Judi Dench, Susan Fleetwood, Ben Kinglsey, Jane Lapotaire (who was one of my teachers at Oxford), Barbara Leigh-Hunt and David Suchet among others.

Shazza said...

Thanks for sharing that Dive - that was wonderful.

Patrick Stewart is gorgeous! Love, love, LOVE him!

dive said...

Thank you, Cali. You are too kind.

Petrea: Jane Lapotaire? You have so many stories to tell! I really must track down those videos; they may be easier to find over here in the land of the "luvvie".
I saw David Suchet at the same theatre a while back, blisteringly good as Salieri in Sir. Peter Hall's production of Amadeus. Wonderful!

Shazza: He is still pretty gorgeous, especially close up. Hee hee. You should have been there with me. You'd have drooled.

Petrea said...

I've seen a couple of Sir Peter's productions in Los Angeles, including his "Amadeus" w/Suchet. I admit I'm not a fan of Sir Peter's. Perhaps he does things differently for the Brits? He had Suchet mugging so much I felt condescended to ("Oh, the Americans, they won't understand so we must play it very, very BIG!").

His "As You Like It" was the opposite, completely dull. A bunch of people standing around talking. Very little blocking or interpretation of any kind, for that matter. I've seen more interesting work in LA Equity Waiver theaters. What a waste of fine actors! Gaaa!

dive said...

Hee hee. Suchet was pretty good over here. Not scenery-chewing or mugging at all.
You do have a point about the Brits' condescending attitude towards US audiences. I suppose they assume it's all like the MidWest and they don't realise that around the crinkly edges live all the intelligent and cultured people.
Hey ho. We'll never learn.

Petrea said...

Hey ho indeed. I'm from the Midwest. Don't forget Chicago is there, where Steppenwolf Theatre began, and Victory Gardens, and Chicago Shakespeare Company. These companies can give any international theatre a run for its money. Well, I can only speak from experience and my experience spans Chicago, LA and London.

dive said...

Ah, I tend not to think of Chicago as MidWest; I have a foreigner's idea of MidWest meaning hick towns full of fat people with guns, packing out churches and eating food from buckets in front of the TV all day.
Moving to Blogville is certainly proving an education as far as the US is concerned.
I stand corrected, Petrea.
Actually, it's late, so I go to bed corrected.

Petrea said...

Hee hee. The Midwest is all things, as is every place, I suppose. It even fits your description. Of course there are no places like that in Britain.;)

MmeBenaut said...

I studied this play at school. I found it to be intensely annoying then but I think I'm probably more appreciative nowadays.

neetzy said...

Thanks for a wonderful review. What an amazing cast! I am quite jealous.

peahen said...

Thank you so much for this Dive, what a pleasure to read, and how much I'd love to have been sitting there with you. I remember you showing me the video years ago, and as I've grown older and done a lot of waiting myself, the story has made more and more sense. Being so close to two of the sexiest men, watching them do what they do so well, what an experience!

dive said...

Petrea: In England we have Essex, which passes for everything from trailer trash, through inbred hicks to carnies and worse.

Mme: We did it at school and totally misinterpreted it, though of course, being students, we thought we knew everything about everything.

Neetzy: It was an awesome evening and I am very lucky to have been there.

Hi, Pea!
I wish you'd been there, too! You'd have loved it. And yes, the guys are still sexy. Hee hee.

Maria said...

I sat there bawling as I read this. I have never once seen a production of "Waiting for Godot." I have only read the play several times.

And each time I was brought to tears simply by the words.

I wonder if I will ever have the pleasure of seeing it performed by two masters...

You are a lucky duck, Dive....

dive said...

Maria, I truly hope that one day soon these guys take this production on a tour of the US and you get to see it.
I know how lucky I was.

Katherine Mercurio Gotthardt said...

Oh! I love Patrick Stuart! I have to rent this movie, Dive.

I confess I have not finished reading this post, but I will.

Katherine Mercurio Gotthardt said...

Wait...there IS no movie version wit Patrick? WHAAAAAAA!!!!

dive said...

Hee hee, Katherine!
I wish it WERE a movie so I could get a copy, but it was live on stage (with the guys not ten feet in front of me) and totally awesome.