If you’re going to have a by-the-book production of “Waiting for Godot,” it helps to have on hand the director who helped write the book on Beckett. Forty-two years after Peter Hall staged the English-language premiere, the director has returned to “Godot” in a scrupulous Old Vic production that takes none of the liberties favored by other Beckett directors of late, preferring instead simply to unleash the alternately knotted and spare and unique language that mystified British observers some four decades ago.
This is very much a classicist’s “Godot,” disciplined and focused, with an acute attention to detail. And it is aptly, and movingly, served by Ben Kingsley (Estragon) in his first stage performance in years, and Alan Howard (Vladimir), in easily his best stage performance in years. Though one misses the ready comedy of the Gate Theater of Ireland staging that traveled to New York last year, the compensation lies in an abiding sense of the play’s abject terror, as if everyone concerned were taking their cues from Mark Henderson’s merciless lighting
Like Walter Asmus’ Dublin production, Hall emphasizes the Irish lilt of the country Beckett had forsaken when he wrote the play in France (and in French). The difference, of course, is that Howard and Kingsley are not Irish, with the result that their Celtic rhythms are acquired, rather than ingrained. This can take some getting used to, and one finds oneself hypnotized first by an unspoken yearning in Kingsley’s eyes and only secondly by the scrappy, even impish Gogo, who says of the denuded landscape around him that it contains “no lack of void.”
The abyss over which the play hovers is superbly projected by Howard, whose reason for being becomes increasingly agitated as the signifier (death?) that is Godot repeatedly fails to arrive. The play puts Howard’s eccentricities to near-perfect use: his singsong voice, so mannered in productions like “La Grande Magia,” can turn suddenly sepulchral, as if he were hearing anew “all the dead voices” that sanity insists we keep at bay. He’s amusingly theatrical when required, vying with Gogo for God’s pity, and unexpectedly pitiable.
The essential quartet of the play (Alex Russell’s clarion-voiced Boy exists to be throttled by Gogo in act one and advanced upon by Didi in act two) is completed by Denis Quilley’s Pozzo and Greg Hicks’ Lucky, the pair a fearsome image of the mutually enslaved duo that Didi and Gogo may one day become. Speaking in sculpted, stentorian English tones that make their own political point next to two Irish tramps, Quilley presents Pozzo at the start as a neurotic ham whose subsequent loss of sight and memory prompts a newfound eloquence. Hicks begins with an overly studied “dance” but delivers Lucky’s Joycean set piece with a crescendo of panic that casts a real chill over his later silence.
On a bare-box John Gunter set, Hall ensures that numerous tiny moments count. Note Gogo’s surprise at his own bursts of French or the resemblance between Godot as he is described and Lucky as he appears — the slave a grim mockery of the ever-absent savior. Who or what is Godot? The answer might be meaning itself, delivered on this occasion in a “Godot” so lucid that a play that once left audiences scratching their heads now has them wiping away tears.