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January 23, 2011 / Siobhan Argent


Published 21/6/10 at

Even though this is a one-man-show assessing John Gielgud’s life, Samuel Beckett is at the heart of 1953. Vladimir, a central character of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, guides us through a tumultuous year in renowned actor Gielgud’s life. As a darling of Broadway and a winter of the rare quartet of Academy, Emmy, Grammy and Tony Awards, Gielgud dominated Broadway box offices in the late thirties and forties. Consequently knighted for his contributions to the dramatic arts, he subsequently took a significant painful blow in the year for which this show is titled, and upon which the entire story revolves.

Written and directed by Graham Downey, the play is slow to develop and initially difficult to grasp. However, once the strcuture of the play is understood, Vladimir’s occasional commentary and assessment become a useful tool for the interiorising nature of the play.

Alternating between Vladimir and Gielgud, the play slowly ekes out Gielgud’s life in dribs and drabs. Famous for his magnificent portrayal of Shakespearean heroes, Gielgud is a softly-spoken, elegant man with an enviable acting history. The audience is asked to imagine Gielgud in 1965, reciting his life story to a hypothetical, sympathetic audience. Vladimir jumps in at the odd moment, offering respite from Gielgud’s sometimes overly-long representation of the circumstances which had such a momentous effect on his life. Vladimir’s slightly cynical representation of Gielgud’s story effectively highlights what the audience may miss. In merely imagining what Gielgud might have said to his hypothetical audience, we gain a greater insight in to how his mind may have processed the events of that year, and how the blight of homophobia began to blur the boundaries between his private and public lives. While the play does have a strong undertone dealing with the difficulties of homosexuality in the fifties, it also highlights the way in which a previously revered actor and man struggled to reconcile his acting ability with his private world. Downey plays each actor with conviction, doggedly maintaining the accents which give each character such distinctive detail.

In the end, how can we argue with a man who is waiting for Godot? Vladimir, after all, has nothing better to do than hypothesise in his time on stage. In doing so he offers greater insight into Gielgug than the man himself. We see not only a great actor, but a man caught in the social conventions of 1953, too proud and resilient to admit that his struggle to reconcile his homosexual identity with his public life was an arduous and painful task in that era. While this play was probably overly-long, 1953 it succeeds in becoming more than just a story about Gielgud’s life. It is asks us to question how much has changed since the fifties, but also just what still needs to be changed to make life more tenable for those who don’t quite within current social boundaries.


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