Estragon and Vladimir really haven’t been waiting that long. A few decades younger than the actors who normally tap their feet and sigh throughout this play, viral wonders Tom Stourton and Tom Palmer inject a certain fresh-faced vitality into one of Samuel Beckett’s most celebrated, and visually iconic, texts.
And with this youthfulness comes an added cheeky spirit, as our central duo bring the kind of comedy and intelligence we’ve come to expect from the lads who piled up thousands of YouTube hits mocking Bristol University’s ‘rah’ culture. While more conventional productions of Waiting for Godot have used old Estragon and Vladimir’s dry, worldly negativity to expose Beckett’s existential thrust, director Simon Dormandy’s production brings in playground silliness to mock conventions in speech and behaviour.
Indeed, for most of this show, Stourton and Palmer act like children. They tumble over each other, skip across the stage, mimic pop songs, and generally seem unsure about what to do about the other adults who enter their stagnant world. Palmer’s Vladimir, the spectacle-twitching young man destined to be top of his class, looks at the new leaves on their tree with a naive wonder; Tom Stourton’s Estragon, the one more susceptible to tantrum, really shines though. Storming across the stage and pouting whenever he can’t get his own way, Stourton’s character is vibrant without losing any of the rich tedium that powers Beckett’s text, sluggish whilst maintaining plenty of the longing that makes the two men’s predicament so affecting and, through most of the show, just plain hilarious.
While typical adaptations taunt that mankind’s anticipations and actions lead to dead ends, Dormandy throws up an extra insult: perhaps, through Dormandy’s lens, what we see as worthy enterprises haven’t even begun. Mankind, in this production, isn’t just futile; underdeveloped and jejune, life has found another way to be unaccomplished. Though, beyond the misery, Dormandy has sprinkled this brilliantly well-paced production with just enough panache to keep Beckett’s tedium engaging. Even as Lucky flicks from docile stillness to screaming agony, the characters interact with poise and style, often grouping together to forge dynamic, monstrous silhouettes that rage against the human condition. Sometimes, due to the layout of the seating, particular scenes are obscured, yet generally, with its neatly choreographed shapes, this is a truly photogenic production.
Though they cut a more faithful pairing compared to Estragon and Vladimir, flamboyant Pozzo (Jonathan Oliver) and his servant Lucky (Michael Roberts) certainly make an impact on stage. With lower teeth exposed in a snarl, his numerous rings catching the light and a couple of feathers in his hat, Oliver’s Pozzo is a ringmaster of cruelty, a true mythical king of the sleazy East End. Indeed, thanks to Oliver’s excellent flair and cocksureness, Pozzo has a power over us all. On the loser’s side of the harness, Lucky gives a thrilling portrait of a decent into insanity. Initially, he is quiet, nervous, thoroughly submissive. Later, as one of the most brilliant monologues on the European stage kicks off, this fragile thing smashes on the floor, his identity splintering into multiple fragments; within seconds, we see a proud theologian, reckless rambler and fitful, offensive ticker. Unlike Pozzo, Lucky is an expressive enigma, never asking anything of the audience, never interacting beyond the fourth wall.
Fittingly, for a production with such radical casting decisions, the familiar bowler hats that top this production have been replaced with baseball caps. Following Annina von Pfuel’s costume design, our everymen have discarded their tatty suits in favour of low slung cargo pants, sports socks and scruffy training jackets. Such an update to the wardrobe sits well against Patrick Kinmonth’s set design, a mountain of debris that wraps around Arcola Theatre’s atypical stage. With its smashed glass, horrid, waterlogged floor and, of course, the landmark tree, Kinmonth has hardly provided an original take on designing this play. That said, his interpretation of Beckett’s wasteland nestles in well against the exposed brickwork of the venue. Here, the organic and the manmade collide, and Kinmonth gives us decay in action – a stagnant, hopeless world to mirror the stasis that chokes the narrative.
Waiting for Godot is at Arcola Theatre until 14 June. More information can be found at the Arcola Theatre.