"If it arrived unknown to me in the post tomorrow, I wouldn't say it was a great 1950s play, but rather, gosh, what a wonderful modern play," says Sir Peter Hall about the timeless appeal of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. "It is a metaphor for what we all hope for each day: that we shall succeed, have a life after death, be fed, be clothed, be looked after. The idea of reducing man's problems to two men surviving on a road, waiting for something, is very lovely."
Sir Peter directed the first English-language version (the play was originally written in French) at the Arts Theatre in 1955. "I was just finding my way at that time, and the production may have been a tiny bit sentimental," he says. "I have absolutely no idea how my direction of it has evolved."
The set is starker than in the original production. "Sam brought metaphor back to the theatre and reminded us that less was more," Sir Peter points out. "I once asked him how many leaves we should have on the tree. He said, 'We usually have five.'"
Beckett is reputed to have been an atheist. But the audience knows little more than that Vladimir and Estragon are waiting for a character named Godot - a name that, of course, has religious connotations. "Sam had a very piquant sense of humour," recalls Sir Peter. "Look at the name: it must have a fraction of God about it."
Indeed, Waiting for Godot arguably explores the existential angst caused by doubt about the existence of a higher being. Sir Peter himself claims not to believe in God, but he sounds equivocal. "The play says to me that life is a complex journey and God knows what happens at the end of it."
This mixture of humanity and ambiguity is what makes Beckett so powerful. Fifty years on, Waiting for Godot continues to pose the same unanswerable questions. "But above all, we should regard it for what it is," says Sir Peter. "A great entertainment."
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