Waits and measures

Alan Howard and Ben Kingsley are like chalk and cheese. Perfect ingredients for Peter Hall's new `Waiting for Godot'. They talk to Jasper Rees
Click to follow
Acting is a difficult craft to talk about, and some actors are better equipped for it than others. Take the two men preparing to spill their thoughts in a rehearsal room at the top of the Old Vic. Alan Howard paces around the boards, describing random circular patterns as if seeking out the will to face the tape recorder. Ben Kingsley, however, having spent much of the past decade in Hollywood, has honed his interview technique to such perfection that the psychobabble cones out like toothpaste from a tube.

It is the startling differences between these two performers that brings them to Waiting for Godot and the symbiotic roles of Samuel Beckett's unlikely lads, Vladimir and Estragon.

The crucial difference is in their recent experience. Kingsley last acted on the stage in 1986, an interval only slightly shorter than Ian Holm's famous abstention from the theatre. But last week, on the first preview, he slipped back on stage as if mounting a long lost bicycle. In his years away he has minimalised his skills to fit the screen, while Howard, not notably burdened with Academy Awards for Best Actor, long ago gave up trying to crank up his film career. For the past few years he might as well have kept a camp bed at the National Theatre, where his performances have grown ever less naturalistic.

The discrepancies are signalled in their appearance. Kingsley dresses like a film star, in earth-tone threads probably purchased abroad and certainly at great expense. He is trim, dark, neatly shaven and, though by no means tall, gives the illusion of height by holding his spine as straight as a flagpole. Howard stoops over him, and looks paunchier and shabbier in blue denim twinset. He has the beginnings of a scrubby beard, a pallid midwinter complexion, thick-rimmed glasses, and a distracted manner quite at odds with Kingsley's unyielding, bug-eyed stare. They're even poles apart baldness-wise: Kingsley's severe crop tackles the problem head-on; Howard's looks like a wheatfield in which someone has hacked out a messy corn circle.

With west coast facility of manner, Kingsley refers to the author (whom he never met) as "Sam". Howard, Englishly keeping his distance, prefers last name terms. "Beckett," he says, "has dispensed with all the normal paraphernalia of saying where you are and where you come on and off. We're just in the midst of nothingness, and yet in the midst of everything".

Then there are the voices. Howard's familiar sing-song delivery, syllables elongated into minims, starkly counterpoints the way Kingsley hammers out the words in crotchets.

"I think we're perfectly placed in our own relationship to play it," says Kingsley. "If you're playing two halves of the same psyche then they won't be the same. If they were, you wouldn't have the dynamic of the symbiosis of two halves, the divided self represented on stage."

Waiting for Godot was premiered in this country in 1955 at the Arts Theatre in Great Newport Street, London. Its director, then as now, was Peter Hall, who completes a 42-year loop by returning to the play that made his name. Kingsley was 10 at the time, Howard "12 or 14" (he's not quite sure which), and neither has memories of its slow-burning impact.

Their own paths crossed at Stratford in 1967, where Hall was still in charge of the RSC with Trevor Nunn about to take over. Howard was a protege of Hall's, Kingsley of Nunn's. They first performed together in The Revenger's Tragedy. But the key production, as revolutionary in its way as Godot, was Peter Brook's Midsummer Night's Dream, in which Kingsley was Demetrius and Howard played Oberon and Theseus. The production famously kept all the cast on stage even when they weren't needed. "It was quite extraordinary, the focus of energy," says Kingsley. "There was an enormous chemical exchange and people felt physically responsible for the others' wellbeing."

You can make a fool of yourself theorising about Waiting for Godot. If it changed the face of world theatre, it did so precisely because it eludes the talons of meaning. The eternal loop of its structure makes it singularly resistant to deconstruction: you could stick a pin anywhere into the text and start your production there. But Howard and Kingsley could not have taken the task on without asking themselves the obvious questions. Such as, who are Vladimir and Estragon, these peas-in-a-pod marooned permanently in the waiting room of life, hoping for something to happen or someone to come? Not, as is widely supposed, tramps. "It seemed to Peter [Hall] when he did it 42 years ago," says Howard, "that they were like tramps, but in fact in the text there is no mention of the word tramp. They are anybody who is in a dispossessed state."

There are other questions you don't ask - principally, who is Godot? "I think that every member of the audience must be allowed to take their own impression away from the event," says Kingsley. "For Alan and I to push that answer is beyond our mandate, which is to present the question on stage."

"It's the essence of waiting, isn't it?" says Howard, ignoring the ring- fence his colleague has erected around the question. "The play is basically about waiting, which is common to every single human being on earth. Everybody waits, for mundane things, for big things."

It has probably been said before, but could Vladimir and Estragon be two actors in search of a character, Equity members exiled into the theatrical no-man's-land of between jobs (not that Kingsley or Howard know much about unemployment). "Indeed, there is that very strong parallel," says Howard.

We could go on, because the play is infinitely open to interpretation, and at the same time utterly impermeable to it. But one thing this particular production is about, thanks to the yoking of two actors who have gone their separate ways for 25 years, is the dialogue between film and theatre, the miscegenation of two ever more separate performance traditions.

Kingsley is certainly the more visually inventive performance, a clownish counterbalance to Howard's declamatory signature. He gets more laughs.

"It gets laughs," insists Kingsley, meaning the play.

"In a way, Vladimir is the ideas man," adds Howard. "He's the one who's trying to organise, operate or manipulate. He tends to be the initiator, suggesting what should happen next, and therefore the guy who's on the receiving end of that sort of process is usually more comedic in principle. Isn't that true?"

"Yeah," agrees Kingsley.

"Estragon's humour is more basic," says Howard, warming to his explanation of why the other guy gets the gags. "It's earthy. Whereas Vladimir is if anything more cerebral. It's pitch and strike, really. And, in any case, a laugh is always a two-way thing. You get the straight line, and then there is a pay-off. But if the straight is wobbly you won't get the pay-off."

Peter Hall has told both his leads that an actor ought to have a go at Godot the way he ought to attempt Hamlet. Kingsley "wanted to do this play two years before Peter asked me. It was the only play I wanted to walk out in front of an audience to do." He has seen the play twice before - Mike Nichols' Broadway production in which Robin Williams exasperated Steve Martin by ad-libbing contemporary gags and, more recently, a version in Dublin. Howard has never seen the play before, but a few years ago acted in it on the radio (with Michael Maloney as Estragon). Back then, the cast performed in English accents. This time, in the first read through, says Kingsley, "we read Act 2 trying to listen to the Irish rhythms in the writing, as an experiment." Then, as Howard points out, "it came off the page. There are thousands of Irishisms in the writing and in English it doesn't work". (Is this why Hall assumed the characters were tramps?)

Kingsley refers to the two roles as "the two halves of a pantomime horse". Might it be attractive to swap ends, to see how the other half lives, the way actors playing Othello and Iago have sometimes done. "I don't know whether any other actors have alternated," says Howard. "It would send you mad to learn it. But I suppose any actor would have a go."

It would be odd if Kingsley didn't disagree. "I probably wouldn't," he says. "There are certain experiences that you go through that stay with you in a particular way. If you return to them in another way you interfere with the process of things resting inside you and becoming laminated into your being. As it were"n

In rep at the Old Vic (0171-928 7616)