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.'"

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

    Tribal gathering

    Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
    Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously

    Illnesses, car crashes and suicides

    Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously
    Srebrenica 20 years after the genocide: Why the survivors need closure

    Bosnia's genocide, 20 years on

    No-one is admitting where the bodies are buried - literally and metaphorically
    How Comic-Con can make or break a movie: From Batman vs Superman to Star Wars: Episode VII

    Power of the geek Gods

    Each year at Comic-Con in San Diego, Hollywood bosses nervously present blockbusters to the hallowed crowd. It can make or break a movie
    What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?

    Perfect match

    What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?
    10 best trays

    Get carried away with 10 best trays

    Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
    Wimbledon 2015: Team Murray firing on all cylinders for SW19 title assault

    Team Murray firing on all cylinders for title assault

    Coaches Amélie Mauresmo and Jonas Bjorkman aiming to make Scot Wimbledon champion again
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!
    Ashes 2015: Angus Fraser's top 10 moments from previous series'

    Angus Fraser's top 10 Ashes moments

    He played in five series against Australia and covered more as a newspaper correspondent. From Waugh to Warne and Hick to Headley, here are his highlights
    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high