Theatre Review: Waiting for Godot

The Edinburgh Royal Lyceum Theatre’s production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is a triumph, and a fitting celebration of two anniversaries: 60 years since the play’s original production, and 50 years since the Lyceum’s own debut.

Beckett’s existentialist tragicomedy, set against the evening backdrop of only a country road and a tree, follows Estragon (Bill Paterson) and Vladimir (Brian Cox) as they contemplate life while waiting for the mysterious Mr Godot to arrive. The play is cosmetically barren and linguistically repetitive, but deliberately so, and the Lyceum’s production does an excellent job of portraying the terror that lies behind the tranquillity of this landscape.

Though it seems odd to praise stage design in a play where the only guidance on this is ‘A country road. A tree. Evening’, Designer Michael Taylor’s clever usage of a covert ramp makes the abyss that is the play’s setting appear to stretch on endlessly. When this is combined with Lighting Effects Designer Mark Doubleday’s very gradual shifts in lighting, the effect is to reproduce in the audience the characters’ sense that this is a world in which the laws governing time and space have somehow been subverted, and the production is stronger for it.

Also deserving of praise is the costume design. Vladimir and Estragon’s shabby vaudeville actor suits stand in stark contrast to the aristocratic garb of Pozzo (John Bett) and his mackintosh-wearing slave Lucky (Benny Young). This reinforces the play’s classism, which itself feeds into the existential terror about identity and human agency, or the lack thereof, in the play’s world.

Standout among the cast of this production is Brian Cox’s Vladimir. Unsurprisingly to anyone familiar with his work, Cox handles his character’s comic and tragic extremes with subtlety and panache, and the result is a performance that elicits both laughter and pity. Cox’s rendering of Beckett’s lines is so natural that audience members might be fooled into thinking that he is ad-libbing, though this never occurs in the production. Paterson’s Estragon is similarly virtuoso though his timing did sometimes seem slightly off, somewhat breaking the flow of the play’s frequent sections of stichomythia. Pozzo and Lucky are also rendered as a suitably Hegelian duo by Bett and Young. Bett is convincing as both the Pozzo that acts as Lucky’s master and his slave, and Young portrays the extremes of Lucky’s stoicism and emotional outbursts with great gusto.

Overall Mark Thomson’s direction has produced a faithful and enjoyable production of Godot, and one destined to leave audiences pondering the question that Estragon poses at the start of the second act: ‘What do we do, now that we are happy?’

Image: Marko Milosevic

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