In 1953 when he was preparing to direct the world premiere of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, Roger Blin asked the playwright for a few pointers about its two heroes. "The only thing I'm sure of is that they're wearing bowlers," replied Beckett, cryptic and succinct as ever.
The playwright notoriously refused to be drawn on the characters of Vladimir and Estragon, just as he kept quiet on the meaning of the mysterious Godot and any details of the setting beyond "A country road. A tree. Evening."
Beckett did speak up when he thought that directors had got his play wrong however. A wave of all-female productions of Godot in the 1980s enraged him. In 1988, he took one Dutch theatre company to court over their version and when he lost the case, banned all productions of his plays in the Netherlands for three years. "Women don't have prostates," he said, referring to Vladimir's much-discussed and all-too-visible bladder problems in the play. Today, almost 25 years after his death, his words, and stage directions, remain untouchable.
That makes what is happening in a rehearsal room above the Arcola Theatre, in Dalston, east London, on a Thursday afternoon particularly surprising. The opening words are familiar – "Nothing to be done!" – but it looks different. Estragon is wearing a hefty pair of brown Timberland boots and wrestling with the plastic bag he has been sleeping under. Vladimir is limping across the stage in a pair of mustard-coloured Nike Air Max, with a record bag on his back. He is wearing a tweed flat cap. Later, Estragon will put on a baseball cap. There are no bowlers in sight.
This is a new, modern-day Waiting for Godot, and the two young men in the non-regulation hats are Tom Stourton and Tom Palmer, aka the sketch comedy act Totally Tom. The duo are best known for their regular backstage skits on BBC3's sketch showcase Live at the Electric and their web miniseries, High Renaissance Man, about a posh-but-dim Bristol student, which has almost half a million hits on YouTube. Both aged 26, they are making their professional theatre debuts at the Arcola.
They follow in a long line of illustrious Didis and Gogos, including Geoffrey Rush and Mel Gibson, Nathan Lane and John Goodman, and, most recently, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. "There would be no point in putting it on in traditional style now," says Palmer. "If we're going to do it, we're going to do it with a new spin, rather than think about the long narrative of famous actors who have done it before."
They are playing Vladimir and Estragon as a couple of modern-day tramps or "washed-up drifters". The flyer shows them sporting Adidas tracksuit bottoms, hoodies and five-day stubble. "The sad truth is that the life expectancy for rough sleepers these days is something like 42 years old," says Palmer. "The idea of the 1950s French countryside wayfarer who is 70 or 80 doesn't fit a contemporary setting." As for who Godot is – "We're having a miserable time on the streets, we're starving, we're ill and for us Godot just represents someone who is going to give us a job or some comfort of some kind."
The production is directed by Simon Dormandy, former head of Drama at Eton College, where he gave Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston and Harry Lloyd, among others, their first roles. He also taught Stourton and Palmer. After school, they kept in touch: Dormandy advised on their first Edinburgh show and, formerly an actor with the RSC, played a cameo in High Renaissance Man. When he had the idea for a fresh, young Godot, it was his turn to call up his old pupils.
Co-dependent, dysfunctional, competitive, Vladimir and Estragon are a classic double act. Their pratfalls and farts, their overlapping dialogue and their swapping of hats come straight out of the music hall. Estragon/ Stourton is earthier, more physical, the fall guy, Vladimir/ Palmer smaller, more cerebral, the straight guy. It's a dynamic Totally Tom and generations of comedians before them know well. Barry Humphries and Peter O'Shaughnessy, Robin Williams and Steve Martin, Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson have all paired up for the play.
This is the first time that Vladimir and Estragon have been played by such young actors and it is something of a coup that the estate has agreed to it. Not a word of Beckett's has been changed, of course but the aim is to revitalise the classic for a new generation, "so it electrifies audiences today in the way it did in 1953", says Dormandy, as his assistant fiddles with the cattle prod that will stand in for Pozzo's whip.
"We're trying to release it from its 1950s symbolism. It is so often staged as a period piece with battered black suits and bowler hats. This is a new chapter in the play's life." Can two 26-year old comedians capture the bleak absurdity of Beckett's masterpiece? "Their youth adds potency to the play if we believe that they are very ill," says Dormandy. "These are young people who have lost everything and are on the edge of death. They are directionless, drifting." You don't need to be 80 years old to peer into the abyss, after all.
Stourton and Palmer met when they were 12 years old, and have been play-acting ever since. Neither are from theatrical families although Stourton's father is Edward Stourton, the BBC broadcaster, who has, apparently, "great taste in comedy. He always finds the good stuff funny."
Housemates at Eton they threw themselves into the school's drama scene, starring as Jesus and Judas in a rap version of Godspell ("I think people were laughing for mixed reasons…" says Palmer) and Dormandy's version of King Lear set in a SWAT team. They are part of a new wave of comedians – Humphrey Ker, Will Adamsdale and Alastair Roberts of Sheeps – to emerge from the school of late. "People have their reservations about how much Etonians can observe about real life, which is fair enough," says Stourton. "It's always mentioned in reviews – 'Totally Tom, brackets, two Etonians' – but I don't think it has held us back."
In fact, it probably helped to make High Renaissance Man the smash hit it was. They made the brilliantly observed short film in their second year at university – Palmer at Oxford, Stourton at Bristol. It went viral and they landed an agent before they had played a proper gig. In 2011 their first sketch show was nominated for an Edinburgh Comedy Award and they have made various comedy shorts, mainly riffing on the theme of daft posh boys, for the BBC, E4 (with Baby Cow) and Sky Atlantic since. Later this month Stourton will star in the new BBC3 sitcom Siblings but otherwise they work together, writing at the kitchen table in the flat they share in Stockwell, south London.
"You have to get used to writing a lot. There are hundreds of other white, middle-class guys pitching scripts every three seconds. You have to grow quite a thick skin," says Stourton.
For now, both are enjoying working on someone else's script for a change. "It's interesting, I don't know how funny it is. We've tried to be as honest as possible and not force it," says Stourton. "There's a lot of physical humour."
"You don't get to try it out like an Edinburgh show. So much of it you only figure out when you put it in front of someone else," adds Palmer. "The comforting thing is that we're not playing it as a big, frothy comedy. So if our jokes completely misfire we can just pretend that Beckett meant it that way." µ
'Waiting for Godot', Arcola Theatre, London E8 (020 7503 1646; godotarcola.com) to 14 JuneReuse content