Fordyce Maxwell: 'I had not seen a Beckett play on stage. Life always seemed too short'

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'DARLING, you would not have believed it. It was, and you know I'm not one given to exaggeration, sensational. Sensational. Dear Ian – inspired. Dear Patrick – magical. Dear Simon – what can one say? And dear Ronnie with that awful rope around his neck…"

Sorry, carried away there by seeing what some critics call the theatrical event of the year, Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot, with Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Simon Callow and Ronald Pickup.

I've read some Beckett, read about him – hard to avoid when as one critic wrote recently "the deluges of Becketteers have all but out-flooded even those of the James Joyceans" – and knew like everyone else that Godot never turns up.

But I had not seen a Beckett play on stage until last weekend. Sad, but there it is. Life always seemed too short to spend several hours that would never come again trying to decode Beckett when I could spend them doing some of the things he wrote about such as standing around, lying down, sitting silently or talking gibberish.

A re-run of Krapp's Last Tape on television a few months ago made me think again. So, while still debating mentally whether I would have been better occupied planting out violas in the evening sunshine, and reflecting that Beckett could have got a play out of that, I found myself in the second row of Edinburgh's King's looking up the noses of two of the best actors around.

All jokes about luvvies aside – not easy when Simon Callow is in full flow in trilby, riding boots and carrying a whip – McKellen and Stewart were a model of two professionals at the top of their game. Because that is so difficult and uncommon I always admire it, whether it is a tractor driver planting potatoes along ruler-straight drills, a decorator papering a ceiling seamlessly, a John Coltrane saxophone solo, Shane Warne bowling or Ronaldo scoring a goal. Or McKellen and Stewart showing me how Waiting For Godot has humour as well as pain and misery.

Er, and bafflement. That's why I sympathised with the young woman along from us, obviously also seeing it for the first time, who sighed with relief as Estragon said "Well, shall we go?", Vladimir replied "Yes, let's go", neither moved and the curtain came down. But as she reached for her coat, the ice-cream sellers appeared and we realised it was only the end of a long first act. There was a second to come. From another showbusiness dimension I recalled Peter Skellern and Richard Stilgoe's last song from their travelling revue which teases the audience with encores along the lines of "Will they never give up?", "That's a false exit, I've seen it before," "God, they're pathetic, you can read them like a book," and "Come on darling, let's leave before the end."

With Godot, it was well worth staying for the second act, even if the ice-cream was 2 for a portion that you could – collected sayings of my wife – "put in your eye". After more reading round the subject and hard thinking while sitting in wait for marauding rabbits I still don't know what Beckett's most famous play is about. But the memory of it will linger.

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