Venue: Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
Starring: Brian Cox and Bill Paterson
Directed by Lyceum Artistic Director Mark Thomson
Website: Lyceum Theatre
‘On a bare country road, by a single tree, two down-and-out friends meet at dusk to await the arrival of the mysterious Mr. Godot. As they wait, they pass the time laughing at who they are, arguing over what little they have and speculating on the meaning of life. Their predicament would be absurd were it not so familiar.’
Overheard just the other day:
– “Not long now”
– “How you doing, Gary?”
– “Aye, aye. Getting there.”
Heard in a warehouse, that is unremarkable. Put it on stage, and it’s Beckett, full of existential tension. Is it really marvellous? Isn’t that putting a word, full of ridiculous and unwarranted optimism, against the void (of which, as Vladimir reminds us, there is no lack). And we know, despite the speaker’s words, there is indeed ‘long’ to go: all of life, which will feel long even with the merciful intervention of an angry rhinoceros or a number 23 bus. And exactly where are we getting to? Here. Always here. There’s no escaping that. Thanks, Sam.
So, that was the effect of seeing Waiting for Godot at the Lyceum in Edinburgh. Life became Beckettized. Works of genius will do that. They reach out beyond their medium. (I picked up Naked Lunch for the first time in years, only to be accosted on the bus the same day by a total stranger, who it turned out had been a dealer: ‘What’s it about? Drugs? Oh-ho…let me tell you about drugs, man.’ And he did.)
I admit to nerves, taking my seat. Godot’s fame is up there with Hamlet and Educating Rita, one of those plays even non-theatregoers will have heard of. What if I didn’t get it – came out thinking, ‘what on earth was all that about?’ The first view of the stage inspired confidence. The set is beautiful: no blackness here, but white gravel, or sand, with a few forlorn white boulders and some tufts of yellow grass; the ground rises and diminishes towards a curved backdrop of hazy – grey, is it, or blue, or – already, one is straining one’s eyes into the uncertain distance. Ursula Le Guin, with her stark, dry, pitiless landscapes that throw you back at yourself, could not have done better. The famous tree leans over, uninspiring, unbeautiful, familiar from any waste ground. Some way off, with his back to us, Vladimir tries to micturate; in the foreground, sitting on a rock, Estragon is struggling with his boot. And within a couple of minutes it is quite clear that this is a masterpiece.
It’s difficult to think that the worst performers could not get something suggesting marvels out of Beckett’s script; the performances here are masterful. The range and depth and subtlety that Brian Cox and Bill Paterson bring, drawing on all their talent and experience, is simply awesome. This is like watching Beckham score from forty yards out, or Bolt run them off their feet – normal people can’t do this. The play itself is enormous, yet it only has five characters; it is profound, yet it is difficult to say what it’s about. There are no scenes, but it changes mode from bleak tragedy, to family drama, to vaudeville, to musical (yes, it even has song-and-dance numbers), with suggestions of Greek epic and a few post-modern comments on itself. And it has a grip like a nightclub bouncer, which seems impossible as it is basically a road movie which doesn’t go anywhere.
Go see this. I didn’t get it, but it got me. And I did come out not knowing what it was all about, but d’you know, I’m absolutely fine with that.