All these years of theatregoing yet this was my first experience of Godot, indeed of any Beckett, and unlike Godot himself it was worth the wait.
Vivian Mercier's description "a play in which nothing happens, twice" cannot be bettered. Two cantankerous old gentlemen of the road (Ian McKellen as Estragon and Roger Rees as Vladimir) waiting and bickering and contemplating the point of their existence. Their equilibium, such as it is, is disturbed by the arrival of Pozzo (Matthew Kelly) dragging Lucky (Ronald Pickup) on the end of a rope. Then they leave. The next day, Lucky is dragging a blind Pozzo. Godot never arrives.
Reality is fractured, shifting. Vladimir and Estragon don't know what Godot looks like, or why they are waiting for him. Pozzo can't remember meeting them the day before. Estragon can't remember their meeting either, although he bears the marks where Lucky had kicked him. Vladimir thinks that the tree has sprouted leaves overnight, but Estragon cannot remember.
It may be nihilistic, but it's never bleak. "That passed the time" says Vladimir. "It would have passed in any case" retorts Estragon, wanly. The absurdity is well-judged - amusing yet alienating, never overplayed.
The cast is excellent. Roger Rees and Ian McKellen handle the dialogue well with sure timing in this preview production, Rees' Vladimir has energy and traces of optimism but lacked force of delivery. He is upstaged by McKellen who manages to elicit an indefinable sadness from Estragon whose memory is starting to cloud. Ronald Pickup delivers Lucky's speech with speed and aplomb, but Matthew Kelly is once again a scene-stealer, perfect as the big, bombastic, demented Pozzo in Act One. Beckett doesn't leave much scope for stage design, but this was done well, an industrial wasteland, stark and threatening.
Two downsides to mention. £5 for a program which contained a two-page article by Simon Callow, a chronology and a cast-list which is simply not good enough, and a choreographed encore with a dance routine which was cringeworthy. What would have happened if we hadn't applauded? Fortunately for all, not much chance of that in this excellent production.