Patronized as we are by the metropolitan chatterati as a bunch of pig-ignorant turkey-defenestrators, I am pleased to say that we in God’s Nelson’s Own County can occasionally put one up on those silly running-about knees-bend donkey-bottom-biters of the Capital. Yes, we get to see the best theatre shows before they do.
So as it was, which is notwithstanding untowards, if obliquely, Mrs Cromercrox took me last night, inasmuch as which, for an early birthday treat (I am 105 on the Feast of St Beelzebun Demon Bunny of DOOM) to the Theatre Royal in Norwich for a showing of a new production of that entertaining play, The Second Mrs Tanqueray Waiting for Godot, as it tours before we rude mechanicals before coming gracefully to rest in London.
Now, there’s something a little special about this production.
Mrs Cromercrox and I were riveted to our seats (in the Dress Circle, naturally) for the whole two and a half hours, enthralled by the joyous interplay between the two tramps, Estragon (played by Gandalf) and Vladimir (Jean-Luc Picard). McKellen and Stewart are, of course, both distinguished Shakespeareans; both come from Oop North; differ in age by less than eighteen months (they are both approaching 70, though from different directions) – on stage together in this almost-two-hander they are cast perfectly as two weatherworn old boys who’ve known each other for half a century – because, they have. They come across as a comedy double-act (with microsecond timing, consciously aping Flanagan and Allen) and an old married couple (McKellen admits that he was almost the only one of Stewart’s friends to advise him not to accept the role in Star Trek: The Chicken of Depression).
But if that wasn’t all, there is again and also a superfluidity of helium: Simon Callow appears as the pompous Pozzo, and Ronald Pickup as his wretched slave, Lucky.
Now is not the place for an analytical exegesis of Waiting for Godot. I had never seen the play before, and on last night’s evidence, I reckon I’d be spoiled for any other production, for I have a feeling that the play’s reputation for obscurantism and difficulty stems from the fact that it requires actors of rare talent to carry it off. I had always assumed that Vladimir and Estragon spent the whole play effectively in stasis: I was wrong. Beckett’s own stage directions demand a great deal of movement, and McKellen and Stewart were in a state of perpetual kinesis, singing, moaning, yelling, dancing madly, standing still.
But what’s it all about? What happens? The answer is (a) I have very little idea, and (b) almost nothing. The play is about nothing. It is plotless and directionless, and at the same time has a heart’s warmth and the cold terror of an empty cosmos. It’s hard to imagine how baffling it must have been when it first played, in 1955. The world since has been changed by Godot, so we now see it with eyes already sensitised by Borges’ fictions, the Goons, and Monty Python’s Flying Circus. To a naive theatre-goer in 2009, Waiting For Godot might seem like a timely welcome from an old friend rather than the alien and confrontational piece it must have seemed when it was new.
So what is it about? Who is Godot, and why do the two old men continue to wait for him? At the simplest, Godot is God, and the tramps wait for him, forever disappointed, forever hopeful. But this could be just the aleph-null interpretation. McKellen prefers interpretations that are more concrete: Vladimir and Estragon are less ciphers than real people. Who, then, are Pozzo and his ill-treated slave Lucky, whose only interjection is a terrific tongue-twisting panegyric as if from a deranged theologian? Pozzo is an arbitrary divinity, eventually sick of his own responsibility; Lucky the worshipper, who despite the cruelties and restrictions of his faith cannot willingly be freed, because it is all he knows. Well, yes, longingly and possibly and yet, and yet. The end, Vladimir’s crushing and solitary realization of the nature of the Universe and his place in it, is something that would be familiar to anyone who has read Borges.
Waiting for Godot is not about faith. Well, not just about faith. It is about the nature of truth, of time, of memory, of thought, of the pain of sentience. It is a play, the play, sine qua non, of the human condition. Mrs Cromercrox and I were spellbound. It was the best straight play we have, either of us, ever seen. We have been spoiled forever, and nothing will be the same again.