As if to blast rumours that his 1997 tenure at the Old Vic is costing proprietor Ed Mirvish dear, Peter Hall wheels out a blunderbuss of a production: Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, as much a cultural monument as Hamlet. Horn in the gunpowder of interest - Sir Peter himself directed the world premiere of the English-language version (Beckett wrote it in French) at the Arts Theatre in 1955; ram home the big shot cast - Alan Howard, Ben Kingsley, Denis Quilley and Greg Hicks; and you have enough theatrical firepower to blow doubt, and debt, out of the water. This show is that good.
As with Hamlet the play is familiar and theatre audiences know what will unfold. As Kenneth Tynan cannily wrote after that famous first night 42 years aho: "Two tramps [are] waiting beneath a tree for a cryptic Mr Godot to keep his appointment with them; but ....... a glance at the programme shows that Mr Godot is not going to arrive." Everything depends, then, on the particular staging, and on what it says to us in our vastly changed times.
The work is, of course, famously abstracted, metaphysical and oblique. At its core is a statement about the human condition, the action suggesting that mankind is waiting for some cosmic sign, possibly from an omniscient deity.
Personally, however, bringing all my late 20th century baggage to bear on events, I find it hard to shrug off a simple political interpretation.
Given that Vladimir and Estragon are Irish-accented, the intrusion of Pozzo and Lucky - an arrogant, aristocratic, whip-wielding master brutally cajoling a dumb, bag-laden slave (Greg Hicks frothing at the mouth like a sick pit pony) - seems like nothing more than a metaphor for Ireland's view of mainland Britain, where society has ever been blighted by a greedy ruling élite keeping the working classes passive and ignorant by whatever means.
The strange, sado-masochistic interdependence of the passing strangers perplexes the two tramps, who are themselves congenial and caring and call each other by the diminutives Gogo and Didi. And when Pozzo and Lucky repass - travelling in the opposite direction this time, the fat master now blind, his blustering equanimity turned to acute anxiety - the two tramps decide to stay where they are.
But staying where they are has its frustrations, which is the clear tenor of this haunting production. For all that their conversations are comprised of time-filling inanities and amusing non sequiturs, it's clear that Alan Howard's philosophical, idealistic Didi and Ben Kingsley's down-to-earth sidekick Gogo are becoming mightily pissed-off.
The playing is exquisite: Howard all high-minded optimism and intellectual questing brought low by a painful bladder, Kingsley his deflating mate with a nice line in irony. Faced with the cruelty and injustice of Pozzo and Lucky's situation, their non-intervention leaves them free. But doing nothing in their own predicament, and "just waiting for Godot", becomes a form of involvement that they increasingly come to resent.
"Why are we waiting?" you half expect them to chant. If this were Wimbledon in the rain, Gogo and Didi would be doing Mexican waves. A great production.
'What's On' London, 2nd - 9th July 1997.