Review: Waiting for Godot, Arcola Theatre
Published in the Telegraph, 16.05.2014
Gone are the bowler hats and the gnatty, moth-eaten suits. Gone too is the country road, where Samuel Beckett’s vaudevillian vagrants have waited and waited on so many occasions.
Instead, in Simon Dormandy’s fringe production, the tree – along with one of the tramps – sprouts out of a heap of rubble. Vladimir and Estragon wear baseball caps and mud-encrusted tracksuits. Suddenly they don’t look like literary icons – emblems of existentialism – but the sort of down-and-out layabouts spied hanging around town centres on a Thursday afternoon.
This – “Director makes choices. Read all about it.” – shouldn’t be so noteworthy. With any other classic, it’s just par for the course. However, the Beckett estate has imposed such strictures that Godot has been stuck on repeat for decades. Its opening line, “Nothing to be done”, expresses the director’s predicament as much as it does humanity’s.
Played by twenty-somethings Tom Stourton and Tom Palmer (E4 double act Totally Tom), the pair become larky lads, killing time with silly voices, in-jokes and pop cultural references. Their slapstick slagging match becomes a mock Mortal Kombat mime, complete with doosh-doosh gunshots and a “finish him’ knockout blow: “Crritic!”
They use imaginary walkie-talkies when scanning their surroundings, voicing the crackle themselves, and pull poses when swapping hats.
All this enlivens old routines, certainly, and their throwaway register instils a contemporary edge, even if it scuffs the rat-a-tat rhythms of Beckett’s music hall patter. What’s missing, though, is the play’s deep-rooted despair, the nagging suspicion that death might be preferable to all this futile tedium.
That’s a pretty massive loss, admittedly, but, face it, the title’s so synonymous with that idea that actually sitting through the play itself – punishing as it’s babble can be – sometimes seems superfluous. Thank heavens for novelty.
Thanks, also, for a young cast. It’s too easy to deem the two Toms too young to handle the existential angst, but Dormandy uses Godot to diagnose a generation. Here, two young men sit in the ruins of a world, waiting for rescue, rather than seeking redress. They hide behind humour and insincerity and, when Pozzo and Lucky (Jonathan Oliver and Michael Roberts) arrive, so definitely master and slave, they envy them the security of knowing one’s place.
It’s not that Vladimir and Estragon have become young, but that the young are waiting for Godot. And that, as we all know, doesn’t end well. In fact, it doesn’t end at all.
Photograph: Tristram Kenton