Waiting for Godot ****

Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is considered by many to be the most influential and important theatrical work of the 20th century. The current tour proves that the play is not an over-intellectualised lecture in existentialism but is in fact a very entertaining, and relevant, theatrical experience.

The play is famous for its set-up: two tramps pass the time while waiting in a bleak landscape for the arrival of the mysterious Godot. It isn’t really ‘about’ anything other than the clever word play that ensues and the relationships established between its characters.

 The main attraction of this production is its stellar cast, headlined by Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, and there is no surprise in the fact that they are both tremendous. The biggest shock is not that these two pillars of the acting community are as good as they are but that they are this funny, for their performances have far more akin to classic vaudeville than the film roles that they are mostly known for. Though McKellen and Stewart are getting all of the press, they are joined on stage by Simon Callow and Ronald Pickup, both of whom turn in equally good performances, making the evening almost a master class in the art of performance.

Director Sean Mathias lets his cast take full command of the stage. The movement is well balanced throughout and the words are perfectly paced. Beckett’s infamously descriptive stage directions are mostly honoured, and there are some rather nice design touches to the production, including effective sound effects and a clever set.

 Much has been made about star-culture infiltrating the arts and how many celebrities are cast solely for box office appeal. Though finances may have been behind the casting, this is not an egotistical star turn but an excellently executed theatre production, making perfect sense of a play that many past productions failed in dramatising effectively.

Audiences may have flocked to see two film stars, but they are instead presented with a rewarding piece of theatre. Going by the long queues waiting for returns, demand seems quite high; going by the constant laughter and loud ovation, most seem to feel the ‘wait’ is worth it.

This production of Waiting for Godot may not find anything new in the piece, but it feels fresh and relevant. It also shows that McKellen and Stewart are not diva celebrities looking for attention but are brilliant actors more than worth the price of admission.

At the Kings Edinburgh until April 18, then touring. For details visit the website.

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