Theatre: Jokes for Godot

Waiting For Godot Barbican, London
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The Independent Culture
"NOTHING TO be done". The first line of the play that did so much to change the course of 20th century drama could be read as a warning to directors not to meddle. However, the Gate Theatre Dublin's magnificent production, launching a festival of Beckett's stage works, is fully aware of the distinct difference between not doing anything and doing nothing.

Directed by Walter D Asmus, this Godot never allows itself a moment of idleness. In its insistent inventiveness, it even dares at times to deviate from the stage directions. From the outset, when Johnny Murphy's Estragon emits a grunt, and Barry McGovern's Vladimir turns sharply as if a much worse fate has stricken his friend than an unyielding boot, Asmus incorporates details that add much to our appreciation of the characters' situation without feeling like additions themselves.

The production makes powerful use of simple scenic elements - a vast backdrop of grey cloud and a large acting space, rendered rural by a risibly fake tree and mound. The mortals that traverse this expanse cannot help but look vulnerable and oddly noble. Asmus heightens the pictorial effect by having the two tramps adopt anaemic tableaux, squinting out into the audience or peering inquisitively upstage.

Murphy's hobbling Gogo and McGovern's stiff-limbed Didi have the kind of faces that look like they are forever contemplating mischief. Resembling a pair of Stan Laurels, they achieve a symbiotic presence - just a few steps away from some slapstick business, linking arms in fright or absent- mindedly trading bowler hats. Inevitably their Irish brogue brings a warmth to the blather and creates unexpected nuances (the "resolutely" in Estragon's line, "We should turn resolutely towards Nature", carries an added note of pathetic determination in the third syllable). But most importantly, their accents sharpen up a distinction between themselves and the bullying Pozzo, depicted by a growly Alan Stanford as a pig of an English landowner.

There is something uneasy-making about the way Vladimir and Estragon oscillate between concern and detached curiosity about Pozzo's stooped slave, Lucky (a willowy-haired Stephen Brennan). Here, the visual gags at Lucky's expense underline the pair's complicity in his pain. As the refrain "We're waiting for Godot" becomes more irritatingly plaintive, so the result of their inaction becomes more troubling. "Was I sleeping, while the others suffered?" Vladimir asks.

Asmus's production makes a strong claim for the play's humour, but its greatest achievement is reminding us that beneath the whimsy lurks a question we must keep waking up to: in a world where salvation is absent, what, if anything, is to be done?

Dominic Cavendish

`Waiting For Godot' is in rep to 12 September. Season continues to 18 September (0171-638 8891)

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