How we waited for Godot

`I haven't the faintest idea what this play means." So said Peter Hall as he started rehearsals for the British premiere of Waiting for Godot in 1955. The "meaning" and implications of Samuel Beckett's revolutionary play, recently voted the most significant of the century, have inspired millions of words from academics.

Yet few of the myriad theories take account of the experiences of the hundreds of actors who have brought Beckett's words and characters to life. The specific demands the text places on the cast were daunting in 1955 and, in many ways, remain so. Just how difficult is it to perform a work in which, as Vivian Mercier famously (if facetiously) remarked, "nothing happens, twice"?

Godot has elements of both tragedy and farce, but instead of those genres' standard plot progressions, from exposition through crisis to final resolution, Beckett freezes his two main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, in a repetitive cycle: inaction-packed drama in which tension arises from anti-climax. In lieu of set-piece speeches or lengthy, passionate confrontations, Vladimir and Estragon deliver inconsequential patter.

There is no traditional "back story" for actors to latch on to. Instead, major aspects of their portrayals have to be drawn out from Beckett's precise stage directions. The putting on of boots, playing with a bowler- hat, eating a carrot - acts which would ordinarily be incidental - become highly expressive indications of personality.

The challenge of one of drama's most famous double-acts has attracted all manner of actors: Peter O'Toole and Donal McCann, Max Wall and Trevor Peacock, John Alderton and Alec McCowen, Steve Martin and Robin Williams, Adrian Edmondson and Rik Mayall, and for Peter Hall's recent return to the play, Ben Kingsley and Alan Howard. Here are

the views of Peter Woodthorpe, Estragon in the 1955 London premiere, and Richard Wilson, Vladimir in this week's Manchester revival.

Richard Wilson

"I FIRST played Vladimir when I was 30, at the old, 60-seat Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, in 1967. One day, John Sheddon, who was playing Estragon, and I got into our costumes and decided to go down to the Grassmarket and pass ourselves off as tramps with the real down-and-outs. The first one that we spoke to begged us for money - which taught me not to be too fanciful about playing the part. The extraordinary thing about that production was how many people nobbled you after the show to tell you what Godot was all about. Their views were almost always totally different and when they had finished I just used to say `Yes, yes, of course'.

Coming to the play again now, I certainly think I'm a much better age to play Vladimir. The first thing that has hit me - after the enduring beauty of the language - is the sheer problem of learning the part. With lines written by other playwrights, there's a clear emotional journey. With Godot, the learning process is a wee bit more mechanical, because the dialogue's so repetitive. The great worry is that you're going to jump accidentally from the middle of Act I to the end of Act II.

But at the same time, it's very important to play off that repetition, to draw attention to the monotony of Vladimir and Estragon's lives. The repetition and the absence of conventional action make pacing very difficult. As a director and as an actor I love pauses - my theory about acting is that it's the thought that counts - but there's so much space for silent thinking in Godot that you could actually drag the play out for hours and hours.

Although there's no plot, Beckett provides very clear sections - marked by the arrivals and exits of Pozzo and Lucky, and the Boy - which help you find your way through the play. It's difficult to judge in advance how explicitly to acknowledge the audience, especially at the various moments when the text tells you to look at the auditorium, or when Vladimir says `this is worse than being at the theatre'. It's the kind of judgement you can only make when the audience is there in front of you.

With the physical details - Vladimir's business with his hat, and so on - I think the films of Ozu are a good model. He put ordinary family existence under a microscope to such an extent that when someone leans a hand on their face it becomes a huge moment. I'm not saying that we are going to achieve that intensity, but we must try to get the audience sucked in, to believe, as Vladimir and Estragon believe, that at this moment in time the two of them are all mankind."

Peter Woodthorpe

"IN THE summer of 1955 I was 23. It was the long vacation after my second year of biochemistry studies at Cambridge, and I was in a Footlights revue in the West End. Every leading character actor in England had turned down Godot, including Ralph Richardson. Donald Albery, who held the rights, had seen me act at Cambridge and recommended me to Peter Hall. I agreed to play Estragon - before reading the script. I thought it was a small part, and they were paying pounds 8 a week, which was my father's wage.

Then I read the script and panicked: not only was Estragon one of the leads, I couldn't understand the text. I tried and failed to get out of my contract. I had only read the plays I'd been in at university, but that turned out to be an advantage with Godot because I had no preconceptions. I was able to submit to the text far more easily than the other, older actors - whom I called `Sir' at the first rehearsal.

Peter Bull, who played Pozzo, found the pauses a nightmare. There simply hadn't been a play like it. I was terrified at first, but I came to enjoy the work. The music- hall rhythms got hold of both me and Paul Daneman (who played Vladimir). It was clear that Beckett had "directed" much of the play within the text: the rhythms and speeds are all on the page.

I was a natural Estragon. He's downbeat and depressive, so my naturally depressive character helped me enormously. I've never seen actors more frightened than on the first night at the Arts Theatre, and we got a terrible reception. I said the line: `Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it's awful!' - and a very posh voice from the stalls went: `Hear, hear!'.

We had dreadful notices the next day and what saved us, unquestionably, was the rave from Harold Hobson in the Sunday Times. We were suddenly a smash hit. Audience reaction varied enormously: wild laughs and great applause one night, silence and seeming non-comprehension the next. That didn't worry me, but it worried the others. When I asked Beckett, in a taxi, what I should tell people the play was about, he said: `Tell 'em it's all symbiosis'.

I didn't return to Cambridge. Godot ran nine months in London and then did a tour and in all I played opposite seven Vladimirs. I found it moving every night and Estragon is so deeply in my head that I could perform Godot next week.

A recommendation from Beckett himself got me the part of Aston in the premiere of The Caretaker in 1960, opposite the late Donald Pleasence. In rehearsals, I remember Pleasence fighting Pinter's long pauses like mad, but I said: `I've done a play like this, Donald, it'll work.'"