First Night: Waiting for Godot, Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London


Banter, bitching and brilliance

"Sewer-rat, curate, cretin... critic!" Don't you love it when people talk dirty to each other? Vladimir and Estragon do nothing but for two hours in a play once described as the one where nothing happens twice. But as Beckett's tramps are played by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen – renewing an old association going back through the X-Men films to the RSC forty years ago – the banter and the bitchiness has an added sting.

These really are two old has-beens who might-have-been fifty years ago, repeating an old routine within a plaster false proscenium on a sloping platform of boards with a stage trap where Godot's transfigured messenger boy appears with not much news and Simon Callow's bulbous Pozzo interrupts a double act devoted to blathering about zilch.

The play's traditionally best with Irish actors in it; they seem to get the rhythm and the meaning right down to the bones, and Pozzo's slave on a string Lucky always finds a strange Celtic lilt to his incomprehensible outburst. But Sean Mathias's Haymarket production – who'd have thought it, Beckett in the Haymarket?! – redefines the vaudeville in the trans-Pennine shuffle of Boltonian McKellen and West Yorkshire Stewart.

Stewart's Vladimir is restrained and accommodating, mildly embarrassed about having to rush off to the wings for a piss (the great giveaway about Beckett's theatrical setting), neatly bespectacled, slightly daunted by the idea that he's on the stage at all in order to give the impression that he exists. Nothing McKellen throws at him is too much, but he copes. He plays second fiddle and seems reasonably happy about it.

The odd thing about McKellen is that he acts his boots off as Estragon – quite literally, placing them downstage like querulous by-standers giving off odours – but never seems hampered by his trademark mannerisms or intonations. 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.

It's a wonderful double act, combining the old world dignity of Alan Howard and Ben Kingsley ten years ago (the first spoke in minims, one critic said, the other in crotchets) and the low vulgarity of Max Wall and Trevor Peacock even further back... McKellen has said that he sees Pozzo and Lucky as a pair of old hams living upstairs in an abandoned dressing room, but even Callow can transcend old lad theatricality in his blazoned pomp and later reduced circumstances of blindness and instability.

Ronald Pickup's Lucky, long-haired and remaindered like Ben Gunn, is a beautiful repository of old memories, symbolising an enslaved, dependent partner while Vladimir and Estragon shuffle about for primacy in the outer room of what might well be an audition process. Is Godot a casting agent after all, do Vladimir and Estragon turn up here every night waiting for a nod and a wink in the right direction?

The production retains an abstract, unpretentious mood in designer Stephen Brimson Lewis's location where the tree sprouts (as specified) three green leaves after the interval and Paul Pyant's lighting marks out the territory and isolates the tramps in terrifying white pools of soliloquy.

Godot is fifty-five years old now, and it's impossible to think that anyone might find it difficult or obscure, though it still seems like a play that cannot make up its mind in the battle between philosophy and religion. The truth is, it's about both, and the wonderful humanity of Stewart and McKellen ensures that you never think for one minute they are talking nonsense.

Or at least, it's nonsense we don't mind listening to, and born of a situation where the protagonists simply don't know what might happen to them next. All they can do is turn up and hope for the best next morning. And how difficult is that to understand, I wonder? As the journalist said in the George Clooney movie, good night, and good luck.

To 28 June (0845 481 1870

Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl

First look at Oscar winner as transgender artistfilm
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey


Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower