Theatre Royal Haymarket, London SW1
Opened 27 January, 2010

“All the world’s a stage, yes, but there’s no need to go to these lengths!” could sum up the critical response to Sean Matthias’ production when it premiered at the Haymarket last May. To be sure, Beckett’s two tramps passing the time until... well, we all know what in the end... have a strong vein of music-hall in their make-up: pratfalls, double-talk, the hat-swapping routine and so forth. But Beckett made the point well enough without the need to locate the play physically in a ruined theatre as in Stephen Brimson Lewis’s set design.
What was not in dispute, however, was the fine acting on offer. Two of the four roles have now been recast, and I have to say that I think the production is even better for it. As Estragon, Ian McKellen is a master of bathos; Gogo has always been the less clever of the pair, but McKellen makes him the classic dumb-but-lovable half of a double act. As Vladimir, Patrick Stewart last year seemed a little ostentatious with his vaudevillean touches, whereas Roger Rees now feels less forced in the role. He enjoys Didi’s more profound musings and his Act Two opening soft-shoe shuffle to a silly, circular little rhyme in equal measure and equally comfortably. There is a slight oddity to his look, though: with his grizzled beard, Alistair Darling-black, pointed eyebrows and deep-set but penetrating gaze, it is at times almost as if the central duo were Gogo and Abanazar. He looks entirely natural in the poster photograph, so we must assume that this is a deliberate performance decision. It’s a wrong ’un.
Matthew Kelly is also conspicuously over-made-up as the bellowing Pozzo, but on him it works. Kelly naturally towers over the other three onstage (I must also mention Ronald Pickup’s masterly understated Lucky), and he makes Pozzo a terrific grotesque, comic yet menacing in the first act (though without the crass fart gags that punctuated Simon Callow’s performance in the role last year) and pathetic in the second, when Pozzo returns to the stage blind and Lucky mute. Kelly would make a magnificent Ubu Roi, I hope some day soon. As for the pairing of McKellen’s Lancastrian Gogo and Rees’s north London Didi, they are natural and fluent enough to overcome the portentousness of the high-concept design.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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