It’s been a long wait for an update to Beckett’s 1953 play, but this slick and lively new version at the Arcola theatre is stepping with bravado into a storied production history. The play conjures ideas of almost unbearably nostalgic tramps in battered bowler hats and beaten up suits; quaint, antic figures on a dusty country road. Director Simon Dormandy hasn’t had the heart – or guts – to do away with the hats altogether, but his wise-cracking, baseball-capped youths have been brought if not quite out of the 20th century, then at least into its later decades.
Patrick Kinmonth’s design supplements Beckett’s non-specificity with crumbling brick walls that suggest an abandoned building site, which the two men lark about on like wartime kids. The leads are twin only in name, as Vladimir and Estragon lose their seeming interchangeability in the text thanks to the actors’ physical differences. Tom Palmer in the former role is small, awkward, nerdy and utterly dominated by Tom Stourton, like a crude but gentle older brother. They’re not too precious with his text, either. They have a naturally bright and lively rapport, primed by years working as stand-up comedy duo Totally Tom. They riff off each other, with all the paraphernalia and references of 1980s teenagerdom bringing Beckett’s comic cross-talk out of the music hall, into the arcade – their hands clasp at imaginary walkie-talkies, or form guns.
Samuel Beckett was notoriously pernickety about how his works were staged, bombarding Godot’s original director with notes after opening night. His estate guard his memory by keeping a jealous eye on performances of his plays, even attempting to issue an injunction to prevent two women playing the lead roles in Rome in 2006. So it feels like a refreshing departure to see a director and actors able to take an approach to the text that’s as knockabout or rough and ready as Vladimir and Estragon’s own relationship.
As well as shaping the play’s small comic rhythms, this interpretation also shifts its big ones slightly out of kilter, though. The pair’s aimlessness is a kind of adolescent aimlessness – they’re not waiting to fade and die, they’re waiting for some adventure to come along and sweep them up. In this context, Pozzo becomes a kind of gangster Alan Sugar, presiding over a baffling interview for a job neither of them are quite sure they want – half baffled, half envious of his slave on a lead, Lucky, who’s clapped out after uncomplaining years of grim work conditions.
Michael Roberts’s Lucky feels like a preserved-in-aspic prawn left over from a whole rich banquet of Beckett performance tradition – vulnerable, compellingly strange and so old that it’s genuinely a relief when Pozzo’s tugs at his rope bring him back into animation. Beside him, Pozzo’s East London snarl is thoroughly nasty, but thin; somehow, Jonathan Oliver’s got the least menace of this mismatched pair.
Waiting for Godot is a story about time, built on pauses and repetition. It feels strange, then, to see a production that delivers laughs without the waits, and neutralises the texts sustained atmosphere of oddness or offness into something a bit more switched on and current. Intensely watchable, it still manages to lose Beckett’s spell-like intensity – its humour and youthful glee have a fainter magic of their own.