Theatre: Waiting for Godot Old Vic, London

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The Independent Culture
Rather like the sublimely philistine poster for the first Broadway production, which billed the play as "the Laugh Sensation of Two Continents", recent stagings of Waiting for Godot have emphasised the comedy in the piece to the exclusion of its poetry, mystery, formal beauty and pain. True, the play uses the spectacle of a pair of tramps stuck on a stage, engaged in the desperate business of having to keep a show going for two and a half hours as a metaphor for the existential plight of needing to improvise to hold back the void and to stave off that silence which, Beckett once remarked, "is pouring into the play like water in a sinking ship".

But it's disastrous if you portray the tramps as being conscious of this theatrical self- reflexivity - a point proved when Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson turned the play into a game of complicity with their fans and so destroyed any sense of the characters' isolation. As did Robin Williams in Mike Nichols' US staging, where he helped the poor old piece out with manic horseplay. During the long Lucky monologue, for example, he'd bark with boredom while sitting in the audience reading a punter's programme. Wanted: a production that treats Godot as a work of art rather than a personality vehicle.

Coming back to the play some 42 years after he directed the London premiere, Peter Hall obliges with just that. His staging is beautifully alert to the changing moods and rhythms of the piece and consents to be moving as well as very funny. The set is rightly abstract - polished bare boards, a skeletal tree and boulder within a dark blue surround, with a moon that floats up like the marker in an electric kettle at the sudden sad-comic fall of night at the close of each act. This is "scenery" rather than scenery.

As Vladimir and Estragon, Alan Howard and Ben Kingsley are an excellent double act, establishing both the physical and temperamental differences between the tramps and the mutual dependency that makes the one almost unthinkable without the other. The cock-eyed comedy of their vaudeville cross-talk comes over here all the clearer because of the Irish accents they've adopted. The airy vibrato musings of Mr Howard's troubled Eeyore- faced, windy Vladimir are punctured by the brilliantly timed, low-flying sceptical missiles from Mr Kingsley's down-to-earth Estragon in his back- to-front flat-cap. Whether suggesting that they hang themselves, with the eager, helpfully matter-of-fact manner of someone proposing a trip to the pub or sticking a cussed spanner into the works with questions like "What do we do now, now that we are happy?", Kingsley is unfailingly superb.

The performances give an underlying dignity to this derelict couple and a grace to their stoicism. There's a humanity in their interdependency (betokened by the tender smile they exchange here as they acknowledge it's now too late to separate) that is unlike the pervertedly entrenched owner-slave bond between Dennis Quilley's heartily heartless, wonderfully stage struck Pozzo and Greg Hicks's transfixing Lucky.

Not that the production offers false comfort. Howard, in particular, excels in the play's moments of inspired, impersonal desolation: "Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave- digger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries." At such junctures, one seems to be getting a sneak preview of the Lear Howard is to do next for Peter Hall.

Booking to Dec (0171-928 7616)

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