What a treat. Waiting for Godot in the West End. A classic of the modern theatre, performed by a crack cast of veterans led by the venerable Sir Ian McKellen as Estragon. "His huge hams of hands are eloquently deployed throughout and his big rheumy eyes rake the void, and the auditorium, without beseeching our sympathy or cheap laughter", wrote Michael Coveney in The Independent, reviewing the original production in May. "McKellen's Estragon is funnier than last year, funnier even than his famous Widow Twankey. The glum Lancashire accent helps. So does the warty nose", wrote Benedict Nightingale in his review of the current revival in The Times.
Rheumy eyes, warty nose, funny yet tragic: McKellen's performance is clearly one to savour; complete, meticulous characterisation, from his bowler hat down to his battered, stinking boots. But what happens if you're watching it from the gods? "Who's that?" hissed my mother as the lights came up on Stephen Brimson Lewis's gorgeous wreck of a set and a bedraggled tramp staggered upstage. We squinted through our (shared) opera glasses. "It's McKellen," I whispered back. "I think". From where we were perching, McKellen's eyes could have been bright red and compulsively winking and we would have been none the wiser. As for his nose – who knows?
You gets what you pays for, right? Seats in the gallery are a third of the price of those in the stalls. That should make a little less leg room and a bottom-numbing seat worth it. But when the stalls seats cost £52 (£48.50, plus £3.50 booking fee) each, it's not so much a choice as a necessity. For our outing last week, I booked four seats in the gallery at a cost of £16 each, plus £2 booking fee per ticket. Add to that extortionate interval drinks (£4.10 for a plastic thimble of warm white wine, served with added crush at the pathetically staffed bar) and programmes at £4 each and the evening cost nearly £100.
Not bad, you might think. As theatre goes, McKellen in Godot is a limited risk investment (it sounds mercenary, but as any regular theatre-goer knows, these things add up). For £100, though, it would have been nice, if not to see McKellen's hilarious warty nose in close-up, then at least to hear Beckett's beautifully spare prose, to enjoy the music-hall rhythms of the lilting repartee between Vladimir and Estragon. We couldn't. McKellen's opening lines were swallowed up by the void, murmured – with consummate timing and world-weariness, but murmured nonetheless – into his grizzly beard. No doubt from the stalls it was a beautifully modulated piece of acting. Even from our crow's nest, we could tell it must be good – but we couldn't actually hear it. Leaning forward and cupping our ears, we strained to tune in.
In the interval, my sister – who had seen the original production last year, from the stalls – told us that the dilapidated set was framed by a crumbling proscenium arch. All we could see from where we were sitting was Beckett's specified setting of "A country road. A tree" – we'd missed the theatrical overtones of the production's design. Would the critics have enjoyed the nuances of performance and direction so much if they'd had to try so hard to see and hear them?
Our £100 experience that night also included queuing outside in the rain to collect our tickets, the sound of a Dyson rapid hand dryer – like a jet engine taking off in a quiet theatre, if you haven't had the pleasure – emanating from the loos mid-way though Pozzo and Lucky's second appearance and a notably absent usher. There was no-one to help us find our poorly marked seats, no-one to sell us a programme or an ice cream in the interval and no-one, crucially, to give the family behind us slurping on a fragrant Chinese takeaway throughout the second half (yes, really) a discreet tap on the shoulder.
That the critics never see a production from the gods is a given – though wouldn't it be nice to send them up among their people one day? – they are, naturally, to see the production at its best. For the rest, though, directors have a duty to make sure that their productions are visible and audible to all paying ticket-holders.
At the Old Vic's justly praised The Norman Conquests in 2008, much was made of the theatre's reconfiguration so that the tangled romantic comedy could be played out in an intimate round setting. From a bird's eye perspective in the gods, though, it made not a blind bit of difference. In fact, the dialogue frequently became inaudible as the actors turned their backs on the cheap seats. Christopher Luscombe's superlative touring revival of Alan Bennett's Enjoy, on the other hand, worked brilliantly when it transferred to the Gielgud Theatre thanks to Janet Bird's niftily ingenious box set. Using only a fraction of the echoey West End stage – until the final thrilling demolition scene – helped to draw the eye and ear, even from the dizziest heights of the auditorium.
Nobody wants a Vladimir and Estragon who declaim to the gods, but if a play falters in a vast auditorium, then producers should be less greedy and stage it in a smaller space that works for everyone. That, or West End prices need to come down to reflect the level of experience on offer. Waiting for that to happen, though, is as futile as waiting for Godot himself.
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