In the winter of 2013/2014, Sirs Ian McKellen & Patrick Stewart came to New York and did a run of both Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land. Wrenn and I got tickets to see the former in January 2014 (on the night of a vicious snowstorm, as it happens), and here’s what I had to say about it:
Last night, Wrenn and I braved the frozen tundra in order to see Waiting for Godot at the Cort Theatre.
Our transit karma was surprisingly good. Despite the flipping great wodges of snow that was falling from the sky, we got everything right away: the bus came within five minutes (though people had been waiting for as long as two hours for that bus), the train down also came within five minutes, and on the way home the train was pulling into the station as we entered it, and the bus back up the hill came in three minutes.
The play itself was amazing. First off, I love that I saw a play for which the main cast was Captain Picard, Gandalf, Frankenstein’s monster,* and Dr. Manhattan. As it happens, though, we got only the first three, as Billy Crudup did not perform last night. His understudy, Colin Ryan, filled in as Lucky, and honestly Crudup wasn’t missed. Ryan did a superb job playing what is arguably the hardest part in the play. Lucky has to spend most of his time carrying bags and being yanked around on a rope and doing things for Pozzo — and then all of a sudden having to burst forth with an endless rambling monologue. Ryan absolutely nailed it.
* I had totally forgotten that Shuler Hensley was partly responsible for one of the few good things one could say about the truly dreadful 2004 film Van Helsing, as he played the monster created by Victor Frankenstein. Hensley actually came closer than anyone in film history to really and truly conveying the monster that Mary Shelley wrote in the novel. It always saddened me that the filmic adaption of Frankenstein that was closest to the novel’s original vision was this overblown mess of a film. But Hensley was brilliant in the role, and he deserves tremendous credit for that.
The Sirs Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen proved themselves a tremendous double-act in the first X-Men film, and the two sequels’ biggest failing was not putting the two of them together more (based on the end of The Wolverine and the trailers for the forthcoming film, X-Men: Days of Future Past will rectify this mistake). Their delightful antics around NYC during rehearsals for the play have only strengthened it, and the chemistry between these two old Royal Shakespeare Company hounds is on full display here. Stewart plays Vladimir as an eager, manic optimist, while McKellen’s Estragon is a crotchety old hobo who just wants to be left alone, even though being left alone scares the crap out of him. McKellen also proves himself a fantastic physical comedian, as most of the best visual gags come from him as he struggles with footwear and his injuries from when Lucky kicks him.
Waiting for Godot is one of the few plays that I’ve studied in both English and French, and it was fascinating to me to see the differences between the French and English versions — Samuel Beckett originally wrote the play in French, but the Irish playwright did the English translation himself. The French version is — like far too many French plays of the early half of the 20th century — all-existentialist-all-the-time with the characters bemoaning and wailing and agonizing and suffering sooooo much. I remember lapping this stuff up when I was in college — the class where I studied En Attendant Godot also included plays by Cocteau, Anouilh, and Sartre — but I have less patience for it in my 40s.
But the English version leaves a bit more room for comedy to leaven the depression, and this particular interpretation runs with that. We get Stewart and McKellen doing Laurel-and-Hardy or Marx-Brothers-esque vaudeville bits, from the rapid-fire exchange of hats to Estragon unnecessarily complicating the process of Vladimir helping him get his boots on.
What I enjoy best about this version is that the heart of it is Vladimir’s optimism. I’ve seen the play performed three other times — twice in college (once on screen in French, once on stage performed by the university’s experimental theatre troupe), once on stage in my twenties — and this is the one that embraces Vladimir’s hope the most. Stewart is constantly gadding about the stage, double checking notes he’s taken in his coat pocket, endlessly taking his hat off and putting it back on, and just filled with manic energy, but also filled with hope. In Act 2, Vladimir has to constantly remind Estragon that they’re waiting for Godot, and that’s often played as an ever-more-depressing reminder that they’re stuck hanging out by the tree unless and until the title character makes his appearance. But Stewart reads the line as if he’s — well, not quite a kid on Christmas Eve, but at the very least clinging to Godot’s imminent arrival as a happy hope rather than the desperation it’s often portrayed as.
The play’s running concurrently with Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land (with the same cast) through to 30 March. Click here for more info. I strongly recommend it.