Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in Waiting for Godot
(© Sasha Gusov)
Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in Waiting for Godot
(© Sasha Gusov)
Sean Mathias' new production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, which arrives at the Theatre Royal Haymarket after a successful national tour, brings together two of Britain's best actors, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. The result is an accessible if sometimes superficial intrepretation of this modern masterwork.

Mathias has chosen to ramp up the music hall aspect so that Vladimir and Estragon feel like two old showmen. The vaudeville quality is emphasized further by Stephen Brimson Lewis's set, which echoes the Haymarket theatre's existing proscenium arch -- although his is crumbling in a state of decay and disrepair. The stage is littered with fallen masonry on which Vladimir and Estragon perch as time passes.

Of the two leads, McKellen makes the greater impact as the shuffling Estragon, feeble, bearded, and tormented by his feet and forever engaged in battle with his boots. Stewart's performance feels less total, but there is a generosity to it. He often steps back or to the side, resisting the urge to jostle for prominence. Yet when Stewart's Vladimir indulges in a little song and dance at the beginning of the second act, there is enthusiastic applause -- even though there is the niggling sense with these two performers that they would just have to cough in a reasonably diverting fashion and at least one person would clap vociferously.

What really comes across, however, is the bond between these two men and the idea that they have been together for 50 years and are utterly reliant on one another. (It helps that Stewart and McKellen also have a long stage history and co-starred in the X-Men films.) Alongside them Simon Callow and Ronald Pickup are also impressive, the former all belly and bluster as Pozzo, while the latter is eerie and unnerving as the corpse-like slave Lucky.

While the production is very entertaining, it doesn't dig as deep as it might and some essence of the play goes untapped. The laughs come often -- perhaps too often -- with some moments feeling funny less because they are part of life's natural human comedy and more because both the director and performers are jumping up and down and telling you that it is so.