Waiting for Godot marks the final production of Ian Brown as the West Yorkshire Playhouse artistic director. Arts correspondent Nick Ahad watched his rehearsals for one last time.
Watching Ian Brown in rehearsals in recent years has been an interesting experience.
A gentle sort of man, he isn’t the sort to naturally impose himself on a rehearsal room, but he has seemed to direct quietly.
In a room above the Playhouse’s wardrobe department I watch as he takes Waiting for Godot by the scruff of the neck.
Not only is it a revelation to see Brown directing in this way, it is surprising because this isn’t just any play he’s bending and forcing into shape – it is arguably the greatest play of the 20th Century.
“Why do you think he’s asking that question? He is asking on behalf of Estragon, isn’t he? Let’s try that again,” Brown commands the actors, interrogating them and the script at each turn.
In the hour I have in rehearsal room, no more than a couple of pages are worked through, each line is subjected to a forensic examination.
When we sit down to talk in the lunch break, there seems to be one very obvious reason why Brown has this new lease of directing life.
“It did give me a lot of confidence and reminded me that I am pretty good at this, that I know what I’m doing,” he says.
The thing that has re-enthused Brown with the process of directing and which gave him a confidence boost, was the critical and public reaction to his previous production, King Lear.
Created with Timothy Pigott-Smith in the lead role, it was undoubtedly one of the highlights of the ten-year reign Brown has had at the head of the Playhouse, coming to an end with Waiting for Godot.
“It was very nice, I was really pleased with the reaction and the reviews,” he admits.
“The production itself was a real mountain and to climb the mountain and then learn to fly with it, was an experience that gives you a lot of confidence. To conquer a play like that where you have 14 actors on stage – this is a piece of cake.”
The last statement is a joke. Beckett, a piece of cake?
Clearly, admits Brown, it is a play you have to interrogate intellectually, and one that appears to interrogate you back. “There is a lot going on in the script, so many levels and huge amounts of philosophy, but you’d be surprised by how actually conventional it is. It’s not that different to Chekhov,” he says
One of the great plays of the last century, from one of the great absurdist theatre writers, a play in which nothing happens other than nothing short of an excavation of the meaning of life, is not that different, with due deference, to Chekhov?
Brown insists it is a mistake to over-intellectualise the play. “The problem is when you read it, it’s difficult to pinpoint exact meanings and very quickly it becomes very highfalutin.
“The academics explain the play but they don’t explain the experience. People always say that famously nothing happens (twice, according to critic Vivian Mercer) but something major happens on every page.
“It is funny and strange, there is violence and arguments, mysterious people arrive and leave and it is only as I am rehearsing it – and I hope as people watch it – that they will understand why it is one of theatre’s most celebrated works.”
Brown is keen to explain that it shouldn’t just be a play that theatre fans should be excited at seeing – which anecdotally, they are – but one for ‘ordinary’ people too.
“It’s a funny, entertaining play. It genuinely will be a good night out,” he says.
To entice those that might not necessarily snap up tickets for Beckett’s play, the Playhouse production has viewed Godot through a prism.
The play is being co-produced with Talawa, one of the country’s few, and leading, black theatre companies. Brown’s Godot will feature an all black cast, thought to be the first time such an approach has been taken with the play.
“When Beckett translated it (from the original French in which he wrote it) to English it was with an Irish sensibility,” says Brown.
“We’re discovering that lends itself to a West Indian accent and sound really well. We had the idea that Vladimir and Estragon are part of the Windrush generation who came to Britain from the Caribbean.
“The idea is that they came to Britain for something and as we meet them, they are still waiting for that thing.”
Having an all black cast, featuring familiar faces like Patrick Robinson, probably best known for his television role as Ash in Casualty, puts a concept on the play, but Brown insists he is not getting out the crowbar to force a ‘vision’ on the play.
“It’s all in the text. You don’t want to be mucking around with it, I just want to be as truthful to the script as we can be,” he says.
Chances are, even if he did want to ‘muck about’ with the script, the fiercely protective Beckett estate would have something to say about it. The last production of the play featured those two titans of the stage, Sirs Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, and toured the country in 2009.
Brown directed another Beckett, Endgame, earlier in his career, but this is the only other Beckett he has tackled.
“Because of the previous production, we had to wait for a certain length of time before we could stage ours, so it’s something that’s been on the radar for a while now. I enjoyed directing Endgame, but didn’t at the time feel I’d done a really good job of it.
“This has been in the back of my mind for some time now and I think I’m ready to do this production.”
As we talk something becomes clear. King Lear was his big, bold, final statement. Godot is his valedictory production as artistic director of the Playhouse.
“Directing careers are like political careers – they generally tend to end in failure. It would be nice to go out on a high.”
Beckett, plus a director full of confidence off the back of a major success looking to bow out on a high – it’s a recipe for success.
Play that changed theatre forever
Waiting for Godot was Samuel Beckett’s first play, written in 1948 in French.
It received its world premiere in Paris in 1953.
The British premiere, at The Arts Theatre in London in 1955, was perhaps the most significant theatre premiere of the last century, launching Beckett’s career and that of its director, a young Peter Hall. He would go on found the RSC and lead the National Theatre, the playwright went on to become, well, Samuel Beckett.
Millions of words have been written on why theatre was never the same again.
Waiting for Godot, West Yorkshire Playhouse Feb 3-25.