All the time Vladimir and Estragon were waiting, where on earth was Godot? This new play offers an answer to that "existential question", and though arguably the question is not so much existential as geographical, I feel quite sure that Beckett himself would have responded with no more than an enigmatic glare. There's something paradoxical about Steve Gough's new play: Waiting for Godot is famous precisely for its withholding of meaning and its lack of resolution, so an attempt to fill in the gaps shows a misunderstanding of how Beckett's play works. At the same time, Godot makes only a cursory effort to elucidate the play of its namesake; Gough's work is a loving pastiche of Beckettian tropes, mashing up Waiting for Godot with Endgame, but it lacks Beckett's eloquent, painful honesty as well as his humour.
Set in a hermetically sealed, anonymous office, the play gives Godot a personal assistant called Snook, who is attacking a typewriter as the audience files in, his jaws clamped around a pipe. Their conversation meanders along, sometimes whimsical, sometimes philosophical, circling endlessly back to Godot's vague, guilty sense that two fellows are waiting for him in another anonymous space furnished with a tree, a mound and a bog. The interdependent relationship between the characters echoes that of Gogo and Didi (or, as they are known to Godot and Snook "E and V"), and Beckett's style is evoked in their fretful uncertainty about where they are, what is outside, how long they've been there, and what (if anything) is supposed to happen next. It gradually becomes apparent that Snook is determined to prevent Godot from leaving, and a foray out into the khaki-draped outside world turns out to be a dream sequence. The final segment imagines a third act for Waiting for Godot in which, contrary to that famous 1953 review, by Vivian Mercier, which said of the play, "nothing happens, twice", something happens. Rather than spurring Godot and Snook into action, the news confirms and justifies their apathy, and the play ends much as it began.
Nicolaus Mackie's Godot is anxious and doddery; it's a sensitive performance but not a particularly charismatic one and, coupled with Gough's laborious philosophising, his reedy, wavering delivery becomes tiresome by the end of the play. Charlie Syer's Snook is more dynamic: his accent is a careful impersonation of 1950s radio announcers, and there's an appealing dash of insolence in his weary obedience.
The cluttered office is an evocative set, and the clouds of dust which rise off the papers Snook shuffles are a nice touch. The projected dance sequence which gives us a window on the events of the other play is beautifully done, with Beckett's pair of tramps in their classic Laurel and Hardy getup. The sound effects don't add a great deal, though: the music works well (though where Godot picked up his enthusiasm for La Traviata is something of a mystery), but the blasts of static and machine gun fire and, once, the wail of an air-raid siren, seem rather arbitrary and add little to the atmosphere.
The odd misstep notwithstanding, it is really the play rather than the production which is the problem here. Naturally, it is wilfully uneventful, but lacking Beckett's knack for conjuring laughs and pain out of inaction, what remains just feels pretentious and longwinded. Towards the end of the first act, the voice of "The Harridan" from "Head Office" interrupts Godot and Snook, prompting an unwelcome and irrelevant touch of misogyny ("Has she a husband?" "No, married to the work; womb withered to a husk"). Earlier on, Godot's musings take in the fact that "we are British, after all", which is jarring considering that if any nationality is to be imposed on Beckett's characters, it should surely be Irish or, at a stretch, French. My companion wondered whether Godot's Britishness mapped against the presumed Irishness of "E and V" was a deliberate analogy for the indolent, bureaucratic character of British colonialism, but to be honest, I think it was charitable of him to read anything so insightful into this messy play.
It is quite possible that the joke will be on me when this becomes a hit, as it was on the first, frustrated audience of Waiting for Godot in 1953. Nonetheless, I have to admit that, while I share Gough's fascination for Beckett's play, I had very little patience for this spin-off: not only does it lack much substance of its own, but it also mishandles the concepts it inherits from the earlier work.