Friday, May 8, 2009

The Year of "Godot"?

Becket's famous "Waiting for Godot" is not just in NYC, but has been revived in London's West End, starring no less talents than Ian McKellen, whose King Lear was fabulous, and Patrick Stewart:

The opening moments of Sean Mathias’s production of Samuel Beckett’s benchmark 1953 play suggest that this will be a “Godot” with a difference, and for two-and-a-half alternately crushing and beautiful hours, Mr. McKellen and his scarcely less distinguished colleague, Patrick Stewart, do not disappoint. There are innumerable ways to play Estragon (Gogo) and Vladimir (Didi), the two tramps suspended in the limbo that, broadly speaking, is life. But in my extensive experience of this play, I’ve never seen a staging as attuned to the presence of mortality that underpins even Beckett’s jauntiest repartee.

Think of Didi and Gogo as two clowns on a road to nowhere, their banter possessed of the constantly changing push-me/pull-you quality one associates with long-married couples. As here embodied by two accomplished men of the British theater, who have found international renown together in the “X-Men” films, Beckett’s hobos come across as two vaudevillians sharing one last, infinitely human gasp. I can’t imagine audiences wanting to miss out on the experience.

Things could, I suppose, have turned out otherwise. With a production that on paper sounded almost top heavy with talent, Mr. Mathias, the director, deserves credit for keeping light on its feet what could have become an orgy of thespian grandeur. In some ways, the casting of this same play’s concurrent Broadway revival, with Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin, seems truer to the comic impulses of an iconic work whose first American production famously starred Bert Lahr.

Don’t two feted English classicists risk overplaying a text that is never more biting than when at its most apparently breezy? (Estragon: “What about hanging ourselves?” Vladimir: “Hmm. It’d give us an erection.” ) Not here. His voice sliding toward and away from a Northern accent, Mr. McKellen softens his vocal sonorities to etch for keeps someone who may just as well have risen from the dead and isn’t entirely sure he likes what he sees. Remarking “We are all born mad; some remain so,” his Gogo could well be quoting the only belatedly wise monarch Lear, whom Mr. McKellen played on a world tour for the Royal Shakespeare Company several seasons ago.

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