Theatre: Worth waiting for

Beckett Festival Barbican, London

To see everything at the Gate's Beckett Festival at the Barbican requires an energetic commitment. Nineteen plays performed over 18 days; 18 films and documentaries shown over eight. And if you've 45 minutes to spare, an aspect of Samuel Beckett's 30 years of craft and 50 years of influence will be debated nearly every day. By the end of such a melee of recurring words and themes and recurring words and themes, devotees will know what Estragon really means by "I'm tired".

On the evidence of the opening productions, it will be existential energy well spent. When the Festival was first staged in Dublin in 1991, its prime motivation was to bring Beckett home; the accent on origins continued in New York in 1996, and the Gate is determined not to let the old rambler stray far again. Its decision is justified by this wonderful production of Waiting for Godot, written originally in French in 1953, and translated a year later. Through their delivery of Beckett's rhythm and idiom, skewed logic and mordant wit, this exemplary Irish company doesn't so much echo as broadcast the influence of Synge. Like Synge's peasants, Beckett's tramps need to talk - even if it's "blathering about nothing in particular" - and to play-act just to make sure, if not make sense, of being alive.

As a ruefully indefatigable Vladimir, Barry McGovern puts to good use his quizzical demeanour and rich, sardonic voice, honed as Ireland's prime Beckett exponent. He looks and stares like a man who has indeed spent his whole life trapped in Beckett's stage-world; the presence of an audience relieves and amuses him. Johnny Murphy's Estragon has the petulance of a child who keeps forgetting rather than the frustration of a man who can't remember. Moon-faced, bowler-hatted and baggy-trousered, Murphy is only distinguished from being a mini-Jimmy Cricket by his ability to do comedy, and his timing is faultless.

Walter D Asmus's impeccable direction makes much of Beckett's potential, beyond the hat-swapping scene, for vaude- villian comedy. The pair fall in step as they pace the stylishly bleak stage; they look left and right in tandem; they wipe dust from their hands like a latter-day Laurel and Hardy.

But the direction is most rewarding - in a no-pain-no-gain kind of way - when the despair is physically inscribed. When Pozzo (an orotund Alan Stanford) and Lucky (Stephen Brennan) appear, the brilliant, bowed Brennan measures out his bondage in shuffling paces, suggesting that his ankles are bound together. It's harrowing to watch. When the pair return, Pozzo blind and Lucky dumb, the latter is still doubled over but his tiny steps indicate a new purpose. As guide-dog rather than beast of burden, there is a shred of dignity in his employment: their shared existence depends on him.

The first triple bill in the Pit is directed by Bairbre N Chaoimh. In Come and Go, Vi, Flo and Ru sit on a dimly-lit bench, their flying-saucer hats shading their faces. The beauty in this elegaic piece is its gracefulness (the text is only 121 words long). Each woman takes it in turn to pace softly and precisely into the shadows; and each executes a cute, conspiratorial slide along the bench to divulge the same secret to a different confidante. It's a dance to the music of text. Act Without Words II indulges in visual cross-references between Godot's tramps and two men (A & B) locked in parallel but polarised repetitions of their slow/fast daily routines. Pat Kinevane and Conor Lovett mime magnificently; the radiophonic music and the mechan-ical prod which jolts the men out of their sack-cocoons and into life wouldn't be out of place in a 1950s B-movie.

Play, the one with a man and two women encased in large urns and prompted to speak by a spotlight, is a masterpiece of narrative economics. The excellent cast - wronged wife (Ingrid Craigie), adulterous husband (Gerard McSorley) and bitter mistress (Ali White) - bring a painful truth to their talking heads. The text is so dense, sharp and perceptive that you want - need - to hear it again. Beckett obliges. But the second time - you didn't think they'd get up and walk away, did you? - the same intercut, truncated lines, delivered in the same rapid monotone, have a different effect. The pettiness becomes vindictiveness; the justifications are hollow and futile. It's not that we know the end - there is none. But its repetition is their end.

Beckett Festival: Barbican, EC1 (0171 638 8891), to 18 Sept. 'Godot': today & 12 Sept

EXIT POLL: views from the Beckett festival

DONALD CLARKE, 55

The second half was better than the first - the actors warmed up and communicated more closely with the audience. It was an old audience which does affect the actors. When I last saw the play the character that comes on with the whip was dressed up in fox-hunting gear which really worked, but this one was not aggressive enough.

RITA PITT

Vladimir looked too cheerful and I can't imagine someone in his position having so much life in him. But his use of language was absolutely extraordinary, although I had the impression that it was played too much for laughs. I found it smiling-funny rather than laughing-funny. Splendid overall though.

PATSY TRENCH, 55

I thought it was slightly low on energy and soporific. Maybe that was to do with the size of the stage, and also that the audience wasn't responding as much as it might have. It was all a bit low-key. There were some lovely moments and it certainly lent itself to Irish actors. But this performance needed an extra spark.

SIOBHAIN MCCARTHY, 28

It was the first time I'd seen the play and I didn't know what to expect. It was like a brass rubbing - things you've always known are there are brought to the surface. I thought the humour was very Irish - the banter and the mannerisms. The simplicity of the staging allowed you to focus totally on the characters and their rambling.

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