Waiting for Godot
In George Cukor’s Camille (1936), Greta Garbo’s Marguerite Gautier says, “I’m afraid of nothing except being bored!” For people who have empty lives, or lives that have been reduced to the bare essentials, the ever-threatening encroachment of boredom can be a serious problem. It’s that problem that activates Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Estragon (Ian McKellen) and Vladimir (Patrick Stewart) have known each other maybe since time began, and they need to fill more time. They work, they get beaten, they eat when they can, and they don’t get to wash much; they’re bums. They’re the kind of people you see every time you ride the subway, and they talk to themselves in that uncanny way that the subway bums do, as if they live at another level of consciousness. They have no creature comforts; all that’s left is the bald and often smelly fact of sheer survival.
McKellen has been on the stage for half a century, and he’s the pro of pros. He plays Estragon in a childlike manner redolent of the English music hall; each of his lines lands in a specific and original way. Stewart is his straight man, as it were, and his foil, and if they don’t burrow deep into the play, they generally do suggest all of its contours. As the tyrannical Pozzo, who is later blinded and brought low, Shuler Hensley does a full-on imitation of Foghorn Leghorn; this doesn’t work out well at all. As his slave Lucky, however, Billy Crudup makes for a harrowing picture of chained-up, nearly feminine beauty, and when he is called upon to speak, he builds a great, mad thing out of Lucky’s difficult “thinking” monologue.
The audience at this Waiting for Godot kept going “Aww” every time Estragon and Vladimir clung to one another, as if they wanted to sentimentalize this most depressing of all pieces of dramatic literature. To do that is to misunderstand it. This production isn’t ideal: the set is rather grand and much too pretty, and the four actors sometimes do not seem to have been in the same rehearsal room. Crudup has extraordinary moments, but he can’t work up any decisive interactions with Hensley’s cartoonish and mistaken interpretation of Pozzo. Similarly, McKellen is giving an effortlessly major performance (look at the way he strips two half-eaten chicken legs of all of their meat!), but Stewart often seems like he’s just along for the ride, mugging and indicating emotions whenever he doesn’t actually feel them. This is a starry and obvious version of Godot, enjoyable for what it is, but very much put in the shade by the stark, muscular version of Beckett’s radio play All That Fall playing just a few blocks uptown.