I have to remind myself that Waiting for Godot is a confounding piece of theatre. It’s supposed to be. The famous repudiations Beckett made to its interpreters, the ignorance he professed of its characters, were more than just cryptic obfuscation. ‘The only thing I’m sure of,’ he is said to have said, ‘is that they’re wearing bowlers.’ Likewise his sole description of the set: ‘A country road. A tree.’ All deliberately, maddeningly vague. And the tradition since has often been to treat the play as virtually untouchable, to dismiss any thought of embellishing Beckett’s wasteland with new ideas. So Vladimir and Estragon have always been imagined, by director after director, in bowler hats.
In this production, directed by Simon Dormandy, there are no bowlers; nor does the characters’ dreadful world conform to the bleak featurelessness that usually surrounds them. Instead the dusty vagrants we see are sporting baseball caps and hoodies, and the stage they inhabit is, though dutifully bleak, far from featureless. In a titillatingly shrewd design by Patrick Kinmonth (whose collaboration represents by far the production’s most brilliant coup), the tree where Didi and Gogo wait sprouts stubbornly from a mound of rubble, which seems to have collapsed from the backstage wall. An abandoned demolition? The site of some natural disaster? It is, aptly, inexplicable, demonstrating that a set needn’t be barren to be minimalistic.
Crawling obdurately, like the tree, from this wreckage we are introduced to Estragon, a lugubrious Irishman, and Vladimir, a bespectacled comic book nerd, played respectively by Tom Stourton and Tom Palmer, better known as the young sketch comedy duo Totally Tom. This isn’t the first time Godot has exploited the intimacy of a comedy act, and, watching the pair launch into a swift and dexterous hat swapping sequence worthy of Harpo Marx, it’s easy to see why.