Billed as its “definitive homecoming” Samuel Beckett’s tragicomedy Waiting for Godot returns to the Arts Theatre after the first English-language production premiered there in 1955.
Nick Devlin and Patrick O’Donnell are delightfully childish and mercurial as vagabonds Didi and Gogo, who seem to love and loathe each other in equal measure. Turning on each other constantly, they make up again once they realise they are helplessly lost when alone. While awaiting salvation from the mysterious Godot, they encounter landowner Pozzo (Paul Kealyn), an insatiable extrovert desperate for attention. Kealyn plays this to brilliant comedic effect, providing a disturbing contrast to his character’s horrific treatment of his servant Lucky (Paul Elliot). Elliot is to be commended for rattling off Lucky’s sole speech at an incredible rate without faltering: the individual words are lost but the effect is mesmerising, drawing all attention away from the other characters. His ghoulish appearance and movements create an uncomfortable degree of sympathy for Lucky.
These unnerving undertones are central as the play becomes increasingly existential. The second act is a distorted reflection of the first, leaving both the characters and the audience questioning what is real. Peter Hall, director of the original production, told his cast: “I don’t understand this play and we are not going to waste time trying to.” This is sound advice, and you are better off avoiding any deep thoughts until the end, lest they distract you from the blackly surreal humour.
The one clear theme is religion and the parallels are hard to avoid. Although Beckett insisted that Godot was not God, Lucky can clearly easily be interpreted as a Jesus on Good Friday. Crucifixion imagery is worked into the staging and design: the bare branches of the lone tree 一 only accompanied by a large rock on this sparse set 一 echo the cross on Mount Calvary. In their boredom, Didi and Gogo resolve to hang themselves from the tree once they get some rope. Earlier in the play Didi spends considerable time musing on the two criminals executed alongside Jesus, one of whom was saved and the other condemned. You have to wonder which, if either, will be granted redemption 一 Didi or Gogo.
Devlin, O’Donnell, and Kealyn have been long-time players in Waiting for Godot (although Devlin is new to the role of Didi, having previously portrayed Lucky). Director Peter Reid likewise has a longstanding relationship with Beckett’s work. This experience creates a richly nuanced performance that cuts through the unsettling nature of Waiting for Godot. The effect is a compelling and thought-provoking production – one that is well-worth watching.
★★★★ Waiting for Godot is on at the Arts Theatre until 23 September.