WAITING FOR GODOT. Nuffield Theatre, Southampton
There's a play, written in French, with a character called Godot who never appears. It's called Le Faiseur (The Fixer) and it's by Honore de Balzac. The subject, money, is far removed from Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, in which a couple of characters, Vladimir and Estragon, wait for two acts at a roadside for a Mr Godot to arrive; an "action" famously described as nothing happening - twice.
Patrick Sandford, who directs Godot at Southampton's Nuffield Theatre, admires it as "the first modern play, certainly in English, that dared to be poetic, suggestive rather than literal. It dared not to have a plot, as if Beckett said, 'I'll give you images and refuse to give you absolute meaning and defy you to demand I should.' " Sandford believes Beckett "wrote entirely instinctively" though it is the precision of the images that makes it a great - possibly the great - play of the 20th century. "Almost everything I do fits it," says Sandford. "I go to a meeting about arts funding and Godot seems about the death of art and the imagination, artists thrown out onto the road." The Nuffield prepares a project for a huge Southampton housing estate and "Godot is about dispossessed youth, unemployed young men".
Youth is on stage too; Sand-ford points out the original British Vladimir (Paul Dane-man), Estragon (Peter Wood-thorpe) and Lucky (Timothy Bateson) were in their twenties or early thirties. The Nuffield's Vladimir is young Asian actor Kulvinder Ghir, from Goodness Gracious Me.
There'll be modernity in the set too. Near Southampton lies the New Forest. Sandford and designer Juliet Shillingford have been out among its barren stretches which are speckled by lonely trees. Somehow, he wants to suggest the Nineties, when the loneliest spot has traffic whirring past. "As the characters wait, life goes on. It's not a holocaust play. Pozzo's going to market, the Boy behaves normally. The real resonances are with emptiness in the human spirit, the destruction of purpose in human society where the only purpose is to buy, sell, own."
Yet there is optimism; "They talk of meaning and humanity and the act of waiting shows hope, the indomitable human spirit and survival instinct." Sandford doesn't assume Vladimir and Estragon are tramps or clowns. "Ideas like that are safety nets. All we know is that they're two men on a road whose clothes used to be presentable but are not now. They've no job, one at least has slept in a ditch - does that make them tramps? - and has trouble with his boots." Pozzo and Lucky, the pair who pass by in each act are more specific, the latter's sudden speech representing "the inarticulate, struggling voice of the oppressed saying give me a meaning and the luxury of education".
Back to Godot. "It's not our job to tell the audience who he is because Vladimir and Estragon don't tell us. But we can assume he's a man who'll give them a purpose beyond waiting for him. They're waiting because they want to. He's offering them something."
Southampton, Nuffield Theatre, March 17-April 4. Tickets: 0170 3671771. Peter Hall's 1997 production has returned to London's West End with a new cast at the Piccadilly Theatre. Tickets: 0171 369 l734. All seats pound;10 until March 10