Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot is spiked with a bantering vaudevillian repartee that is meant to tickle the funny bone of an egghead. Of course it should also be a lot more than that, but few audience members will be complaining about the way this current, exceptionally entertaining production chooses to skim over some of Beckett's bleakest darknesses.
It is hard to imagine a swanker staging. This is Beckett deluxe, and not just through the stellar casting of Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart as the aged tramps who are forever waiting for what will never arrive. Sean Mathias's direction sails along, the designs are stunningly evocative and that infamously difficult cerebral edge which can frighten off the general audience has been massaged away with a celebrity candy coating.
McKellen and Stewart, two of Britain's most prestigious actors, have a privileged relationship based on decades of working together, most notoriously in the Hollywood blockbuster series X-Men. Their camaraderie leads to a gloriously nuanced nonchalance which dazzles by its understatement. And a very real resonance is gained in having this duo played by actors of the proper seniority. McKellen is now 70, Stewart just a couple of years younger. Together, they convincingly embody this pair of has-been music hall performers who have long since fallen on hard times.
McKellen's Estragon is unkempt, unshaven and undoubtedly unwashed. With the forlorn rheumy eyes of a habitual drunk he fumbles and bumbles around with a shuffling, caved-in inevitability. Clarity is slipping away from him.
Stewart's Vladimir is more secure, more vigorous. Bespectacled, less rumpled, definitely more focused yet he is fundamentally no less lost than his partner.
Their eternal wait is disrupted midway through each of the play's two acts by the appearance of another duo, Pozzo and Lucky. The stentorian Simon Calow was born to play Pozzo, a bombastic ringmaster who presides over a circus that has ceased to exist. An overweening cartoon, Pozzo comes complete with a whip and a trick pony on a leash - the only problem is that it's not a pony but another human being, Lucky.
Ronald Pickup, with silvered angel's hair reaching half way down his hunched back, is the ironically named Lucky, a drudge who no longer knows how to be anything other than a slave.
Designer Stephen Brimson Lewis situates the action within an ornate but decrepit false proscenium. Much more viewer-friendly than Beckett's own Spartan requirements, this stage within a stage is a physical mirror of the director's take on the play: Theatre as life, life as theatre.
Everything Beckett ever wrote tells us that we are unduly cursed as the only animals who know that we don't know but as Winnie in Happy Days attests, hope diminished is not hope snuffed out.