Waiting for Godot in London
(and New York)
30 April 2009
As I write, Waiting for Godot is opening on Broadway in the Roundabout Theatre's production by Anthony Page, who directed me in Sean Mathias's play Cowardice. Sean is currently directing Godot himself and throughout our rehearsals for the play in London and recently during an eight week UK tour, he and the cast have wondered what our New York friends and counterparts were up to. Tony Page, having worked with Beckett himself on a revival of Godot at the Royal Court, might be thought to have special insights, although I wasn't much impressed by his thinking I was miscast as the dependent Gogo and should be playing the more dominant Didi, which is rightly Patrick Stewart's role.
In from our first preview tonight at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London, I left a phone message of luck for the American Didi and Gogo - Bill Irwin and Nathan Lane. If I'd been less pre-occupied with our own show, I should have sent flowers or better a bunch of Gogo's favourite carrots. Where are telegrams when you need them?
Our own opening, with the critics in their aisle seats, is next Wednesday, by which time we will have performed the play over 60 times, beginning in March in Great Malvern, far from the attention of the national media. When I was a lad, West End shows would usually tour before arriving in London. Wonderful for hungry theatregoers living far from the capital. I've always been grateful to those touring actors and it's a debt I'm happy to repay these days when most West End shows are just that, never on the road unless it's after a London run and the cast has been changed, often for the worse.
For the actors of course the benefits are mutual. Outside London, audiences are eager for productions that their local theatres can't generally provide. Our performances have been gratifyingly full, with a level of enthusiasm that has gladdened our hearts. In the meantime, even after five weeks intensive rehearsal, the four of us have continued to discover the play's depths, in the light of the audience's response.
After Malvern we were in Milton Keynes where audiences, alert to the fun in the play, laughed at almost every line and rather missed the dark misery of the characters' predicament. It's not often that actors try to kill laughter! Beckett called it "a tragicomedy" and that seems to be what we have realised.
I don't want to critique our work, that is for others to do but two basic approaches are notable. Didi and Godot have known each other for half a century, so it seems obvious to cast two actors on the brink of 70 to play them. (The first British Gogo, Peter Woodthorpe, was oddly in his early 20's). A common misconception is that these two geezers live together all the time. Yet they only meet up in the evenings and part again at nightfall.
Theirs is a professional relationship, a work-based alliance. Their patter, jokes, repetitions, are like routines from a bygone double-act, performers who meet daily for the evening's work of twice-nightly shows divided by the play's interval. Pozzo and Lucky too remind me of outrageous comic routines of music-hall acts.
That was our way into the nature of the play's relationships acted out on Stephen Brimson Lewis's destroyed theatre where a a tree, the only sign of life, has rooted itself in the basement and thrust itself through the boards of the stage. In New York, the setting too is a wasteland and with two clowns cast as the protagonists I suspect there is much in common between our approaches.