Last year was the 50th anniversary of Peter Hall’s English language premiere in London of Waiting for Godot. Sadly he was not able to mark this by bringing his Bath revival to London because it would have clashed with the Barbican’s Beckett Festival. But here it is now. And better late than never, as Vladimir and Estragon would surely agree.
It is a beautifully modulated production, precise in every detail and switching imperceptibly from comedy to pathos. In places it is too smooth, yet over the course of the evening the production gathers weight and invites increasing compassion for the two tramps and their valiant struggle against the futility of their situation. By the end, as they stand rooted to the spot on either side of the impassive tree, their exhausted silence is deeply moving.
It is led by two magnificent performances from Alan Dobie and James Laurenson. Laurenson’s Vladimir is the more refined half of the duo: the remnants of a cravat dangle round his neck and he is troubled by half-memories of good conduct and recurrent bouts of optimism. His spirit not yet broken, his eyes brighten at any opportunity for debate, so he is all the more moving when he finally does deflate. Dobie is his Eeyorish counterpart. His mournful countenance peers out from beneath his battered hat; a look of infinite weariness sits in his tired eyes. He barks out his responses, a man made permanently irritable by his aching feet.
Indeed, in their performances I was struck more than ever before by the play’s depiction of the humiliations of old age: the physical privations, the sense of rejection, the desperate effort to remember and to have one’s memories confirmed by another. Vladimir and Estragon here resemble those old maiden aunts who can’t live with each other and can’t live without each other.
Terence Rigby’s Pozzo and Richard Dormer’s Lucky (who gives a brilliant, distressing delivery of the “thinking” speech) likewise emerge as mutually dependent. The play here is underpinned by the terror of being alone.
Hall’s production, then, gives us both the comic double act – building in little vaudeville routines for the duo – and the painful truth it reveals. It brings home Beckett’s ground- breaking achievement of constructing something that is clearly artificial, yet profoundly true to our experience. ★★★★☆
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