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Poetic despair

Waiting for Godot
Theatre Royal Haymarket Monsters
Arcola

13 May 2009

12:00 AM

13 May 2009

12:00 AM

Waiting for Godot
Theatre Royal Haymarket

Monsters
Arcola


Godot is one of the most undramatic pieces of theatre ever written and it contains a conundrum I’ve never seen satisfactorily resolved. As a playwright you aim to communicate emotion. If you can make the spectators feel what the characters are feeling, you have a success. However, if what the characters are feeling, and what the spectators are feeling, is suicidal boredom you have sabotage. Beckett takes a sado-masochistic pleasure in elasticating his play with tedious longeurs so that viewers don’t just watch the boredom, they share in it, live it, breathe it, die of it. Much as you try to counsel yourself, ‘Bored? No I’m on a higher plane altogether, communing with the nullity of the fathomless abysm’, the result is the same — tedium. And this star-encrusted production serves up thumping great doses of Beckettian anti-matter. Director Sean Mathias has begun with a ‘concept’ which the show sets out to prove, namely that Didi and Gogo are a washed-up Vaudeville act. The text can easily bear this interpretation but it leads to irritants and contradictions. Instead of ‘a country road’ the play is set in a bombed-out theatre, where an illogical willow tree sprouts up through a gap in the stage. And the actors overemphasise the music-hall theory with distracting bits of mime and unscripted face-pulling.

Patrick Stewart has been given the role of Vladimir as if that were the end of it. Did no one notice that playing a bum might be outside the range of this regal performer? His charisma and nobility, his magnificent air of calm and authority, his sleekness, his coltish physical agility, all these qualities need to be taken apart and constructed anew from within. The external details have also been overlooked. Stewart hasn’t troubled to rub soot into his gleaming array of billion-quid gnashers, nor to let his cropped beard grow out into the burst-pillow effect of the genuinely homeless, nor even to leave his designer spectacles in the dressing room. He just doesn’t look like a tramp. Well, he does, but like a tramp being impersonated by a banker or an architect for a forfeit. Though his presence and his sheer watchability take Stewart a long way there’s still a charlatan note in the performance. I never believed this Vladimir had slept anywhere other than the Hilton. Ian McKellen, on the other hand, an actor whose exalted reputation has sometimes baffled me, gave the best Estragon I can remember. His face and his costume are splendid ruinations, his fuzzy beard looks like hay-rick in a gale and his Lancashire accent strangely emphasises the role’s morbid whimsy. He got the biggest laughs too, often by doing nothing more than staring into the gallery with those moist, baleful eyes.

Godot may be punishingly dull for most of its length but the closing speeches rival anything in Shakespeare as expressions of poetic despair. After the lights dimmed, the cast took their bows and the two stars began performing a lengthy and overrehearsed passage of music-hall mime, the QED to the production’s theoretical proposition. This baroque and self-indulgent curtain-call — by far the fussiest I’ve ever seen — revealed something faintly disturbing about the production. The stars seemed to be suggesting that they outshone the roles they’d played and that the script was just a nuisance which had to be got through before they could give the audience what it really wanted — A-list larks from Hollywood royalty. This is a very un-Godot-like Godot. But the fact that existentialism’s most sublime literary vehicle has become a showboat for movie stars is a paradox Beckett is as likely to have enjoyed as deplored.

Monsters, at the Arcola, is a dispassionate and intelligent attempt to examine the murder of two-year-old James Bulger in 1993. Niklas Radstrom’s play works as both a drama and as a public meeting. The players sometimes adopt the unnerving tack of addressing the audience directly and asking what they expect to gain from a play about infanticide. One doesn’t learn much about the event itself. It remains a mystery how two pathetic, bullied little boys hatched a plan to ‘get a kid lost’ and, over several hours, allowed the scheme to evolve from meanness into murder. Radstrom is good at exposing the commercial motives of the tabloid papers, which gratuitously rebranded James as ‘Jamie’, a name his family had never used. But I wanted to hear more about the real source of the crime, the families of the ten-year-old killers. Like charity, murder begins at home.


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