Nearly waiting for ever

David Nathan

On the morning of the first day's rehearsal for the Old Vic production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, Peter Hall talked to his cast about the play and how, as the first director of the English language version 42 years ago, it completely changed his life.

"I sometimes wake up in a muck sweat thinking what would have happened if, like everyone else, I had turned it down," he told Ben Kingsley (Estragon), Alan Howard (Vladimir), Greg Hicks (Lucky) Denis Quilley (Pozzo), the designer, John Gunter, and a small number of production staff.

As a result of that production, which nearly came off after four performances, Hall was asked to run the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford and Tennessee Williams gave him leave to direct all his plays in Britain. He was also asked to direct the play Gigi and so met Leslie Caron, who became his wife and the mother of two of his children.

"It's fairly worrying, exciting and strange to come back to it," Hall said. "It is one of the great plays of the 20th century, certainly the play of the mid-century."

He was 24-years-old and was in the middle of rehearsals of Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra at the Arts Theatre when he was sent the Godot script by Donald Albery, the West End producer. With it was a letter that said, "Every actor has turned it down; every director, every designer. No one will look at it."

The rest is history - how he put it on, how the audience - and critics were largely hostile - how the management heeded his plea to keep it going until The Sunday Times acclaimed it and how, in consequence, it ran for eight months at the Criterion.

Beckett, Hall said, had the extraordinary idea that waiting, getting through the day, getting through the night, was something dramatic and tense; that waiting, though boring, was also dramatic because you were waiting for something that might or might not happen. It became a metaphor for life.

"Who is Godot? He might be belief, might be God, might be philosophy, might be politics. At one point Sam said to me, 'Godot's a pair of new boots.' "It is also extremely funny. It is based on vaudeville, on clowns, on cross talk. " In fact, in the Paris production Vladimir and Estragon were clowns. The text gives no indication. To Hall they seemed to be tramps and they have been tramps in every production since.

Whatever they are, "these two men represent the whole gamut of humanity, from male to female and back again. They sit and chat and make jokes and pass the time. After they have had a row they say, 'that passed the time' and then conclude that it would have passed in any case.

"It is terribly human and asks vital questions - why are we here? What are we doing here? Who made us? How do we depend on each other? How can we love each other? How can we stop hurting each other? How do we survive? Where do we get tomorrow's carrots from? What do we think? Is there any news? What will happen when we die?

"There are hundreds of questions in the play and almost no answers."

Now it was up to them, Hall said, the actors, the designer and himself, to explore the play. The fact that he had done it before did not mean that he had set ideas on how to do it now.

Rehearsals began that afternoon.

Previewing now. Press night: June 27. Tickets: 0171 928 7616

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David Nathan

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