Godot has arrived: The stars of Beckett's masterpiece reveal what the play means to them

Prior to this production, what were your experiences of 'Godot' and of Beckett?

Patrick Stewart: I was just 17 when I first saw the play, in 1957. It was my first year at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and it was my great good fortune to have been there when the Old Vic company was full of glorious talents, led by an unknown called Peter O'Toole, who was 25. I saw him as Vladimir in Godot and he has been my benchmark for stage charisma ever since – just the intensity of his presence. I came out of that production shaking with excitement, even though I was at times puzzled and scared by the play. I said to myself, "One day I'm going to do that part"; but it's taken 50 years for it to come round.

Simon Callow: As a pupil at the London Oratory School, I ran something called the Literary and Debating Society – basically an opportunity for me to read plays out loud, because we had no school drama. I organised a reading of Godot (playing Pozzo) and, looking back, I'm quite proud, because this was in 1965, just 10 years after the London premiere, when the play was still regarded as almost impossibly complicated.

It's a Catholic school, so the religious imagery running through the play was part of our daily experience. There were a lot of Irish pupils, so the Irish relish for language in many of the turns of phrase were very apparent to us. Our audience loved it. Beckett was our great modern writer: bold, iconoclastic, turning everything on its head.

Ronald Pickup: I saw Godot first in a university production and then on television. I was lucky enough to work with Beckett, first at the Royal Court, when I was in Play with Anna Massey and Penelope Wilton in 1976, and then in 1977 on Ghost Trio and ... but the clouds..., two short pieces for television, which Beckett and Donald McWhinnie directed together. Meeting him was an overwhelming experience. He was obsessed with rhythm, and to watch him with the text in front of him was like seeing a composer conducting their own work.

Ian McKellen: I was frightened of the play when we started rehearsals, because I've not seen a production that I was at ease with totally. I thought the play was a bit obscure. That means either I was being a bad audience or those productions weren't as good as they might've been, because now that we're delving into it I see that it is rich, heart-warming and joyful.

How conscious are you of the huge range of critical interpretations published about the play?

RP: There are some terrific people who've written wonderful stuff on Beckett. It's given them licence to take Godot to mean anything, which is what we've been saying in rehearsal: that the play is applicable to any place and any time in history.

SC: But, as so often, when you come to do the play and you want help with a particular passage, you find nothing illuminating has been written!

How do you view the Vladimir/Estragon and Pozzo/Lucky relationships?

PS: The more I read the play the more the Vladimir and Estragon relationship feels like a marriage: a couple who've been together for decades. I say to him: "Boots must be taken off every day! I'm tired telling you that. Why don't you listen to me?" I sound like a nagging wife.

RP: For those members of the audience who have been married a long time, I think there may be an awful lot of nudging going on during the performance: "That's just like you in the evenings when you come home!"

SC: With Pozzo and Lucky, clearly there was a catastrophe of some sort, because Pozzo says there was a time when Lucky used to be so helpful, kind and entertaining, but now ... We've imagined their deliriously enjoyable conversations: radiant, stimulating exchanges. Then at some point Pozzo became like Stalin, and Lucky became a horrible example of what the powerful can do to an individual.

Vladimir and Estragon are often referred to as a double act; Pozzo invites them to rate his oratory; Lucky's only speech is a prolonged solo. To what extent do you view them as performers?

IM: The extension of the notion that "nothing happens" in terms of a conventional dramatic plot is that the characters somehow aren't real, that they're representations of "mankind". But I can't as an actor just be an example of Everyman. I like to know what the past has been – and one of the elements of that past, we think, is that Vladimir and Estragon have been professional companions. They're stuck with memories that come out of having worked closely together.

PS: Their repartee has very much a comic, music hall quality to it, and at the beginning of Act Two Vladimir sings a song, which might've been part of their routine. But, even though the audience is occasionally acknowledged, Vladimir and Estragon are performing wholly for one another.

SC: Clearly Beckett has given Pozzo elements of a ringmaster. He's a performer who asks: "How did you find me? Good? Mediocre? Positively bad?"

In the text, the business with hats, boots, whip, baggage and vegetables is described in exceptional detail. How are you responding to Beckett's stage directions?

SC: Few plays carry this level of precision with stage directions, but we'd struggle to understand the Pozzo/Lucky relationship without them. What we've done is to follow them, so that we've achieved what we think was Beckett's intention.

IM: It would be a travesty to say you could only do this play if you not only say exactly what's been written but also do exactly the written moves.

PS: It's a denial of everything that theatre is if we're simply there to perform a ritual. This, ultimately, must be our Waiting for Godot.

IM: Our audiences will be in the company of people who are modest about their own contribution to the show, but enthusiastic about Beckett's.

'Waiting for Godot' is currently on tour and at the Theatre Royal Haymarket from 30 April (0845 481 1870; www.waitingforgodottheplay.com)