"What's not to get?": Michael Billington on Waiting for Godot

The Guardian theatre critic reviews new Samuel Beckett production
Iain McKellen as Estragon in the UK revival of Samuel Beckett's 'Waiting for Godot'
'I have no problem with the fact that [Waiting for Godot] stars two big box-office names in Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. But Sean Mathias's production not only includes superfluous Goon Show-type sound effects but also permits its two lead actors to get away with a good deal of showbiz shtick. At times I felt the evening was closer to Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys, about the reunion of two old vaudevillians, than to Beckett's tragic vision of humanity.'

Michael Billington has written once again on the UK revival of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. At first glance, his observations celebrate the newfound public acceptance of open-ended theatre; plays that have for so long played to critics and academics are now becoming popular with the public at large. Wonderful! you might say: it's about time! And so it is. But that's not where the article ends, and it's not the happy ending we were hoping for. What Billington gives with one hand, he takes with the other, and it begins to appear that his well-meaning assessment conceals some not-so-well-meaning conservative reservations.

While Billington is willing to accept and venerate the public's interest in 'freedom of choice' concerning the theatre, and the way Waiting for Godot is being embraced by audiences at London's Haymarket, he appears to resist the productions themselves. His article is structured around a surreptitious contradiction. In the case of the Beckett revival, Billington appears to accuse Sean Mathias' direction of pandering to the masses, resorting to 'Goon Show-type sound effects' and wallowing in crass 'showbiz shtick'. Billington resists these aspects of the production by stressing the importance of the text, as written, and of upholding Samuel Beckett's authorial vision.

I think that his review makes an interesting case, but I am also a little bemused that he would feel this way. To begin with, the Beckett Estate, for all their limitations, are the first to admit that there is no definitive reading of Beckett's work. Each production is a kind of rejuvenation, or reinvention, that builds on the reputation of previous productions, and so adds to the richness of the play's long-term cultural significance. Each successive treading of the boards brings something new to the table, emphasizing a different theme or image or idea for the audience to take away with them. There is no right or wrong interpretation, strictly speaking, and to suggest so misses one of the fundamental points of Beckett's ouevre.

Waiting for Godot
is a play that somehow manages to grasp at a 'tragic vision of humanity', but infuses that vision with humour, irony and slapstick. I can relate to Billington's point that there is a 'joy of not getting it' when it comes to open-ended narratives and profound questions, but it's the joyfulness that Billington doesn't seem to get: the joyfulness of getting what's not to get.