Spare ten pence for a cup of tea, luvvy?

There are two new tramps in Waterloo. One used to think he was Gandhi, the other was Henry V. Now they just sit around talking about life, art and Samuel Beckett. Their names? Ben Kingsley and Alan Howard

Scene: an Old Vic rehearsal room. Two actors sit about. They have been doing so for aeons, or at least since they met in 1967 and worked together for the RSC. The one calling himself Ben Kingsley is playing somebody called Estragon; the other says he's Alan Howard, but is really Vladimir. They are waiting for Sir Peter Hall, the almighty being being who is reviving Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. He directed the English-language premiere of the play at the Arts Theatre in 1955. A third person, Lyn Gardner, watches silently.

Ben Kingsley: We've done duch a lot of talking during rehearsals. There comes a time when things have to be allowed to settle. Where our brains ought to be now is veering towards silence.

Alan Howard: We've had to dig and delve. It's the nature of the beast. Godot is made up of millions of fragments and connections.

'Waiting for vinegar......Kingsley and Howard calm the butterflies with a bag of chips'

Kingsley: We've excavated so many layers that Alan and I have reached a poise. The discovery now will be in the doing.

Howard: It's not a question of finding answers but of asking better questions. There are no absolutes. They are interpreted endlessly, infinitely. It is true of all really good plays. It's what we all try and do in life.

Kingsley: But sometimes asking better questions is very daunting for people. In the context of a relationship, those questions invariably reflect an agenda that may be very disturbing for the other person. It is very hard to say to someone: "Please don't take this personally, but I'm wondering what my life is all about." The other person is bound to take it personally. If Samuel Beckett does it for you, it doesn't have any agenda. So those questions can be asked in a way that isn't frightening for the other person.

Howard: The way he writes it, everything appears to be completely in the moment in which it takes place. It is without retention. In real life, people do retain what somebody says to them. Everyone tries to analyse the past. They can't help turning it into a concrete club to hit someone with in the present. Or a projection that is going to burden the future.

Kingsley: We carry agendas forward from the day before or the distant past, but have nothing to do with the moment that we are living. Beckett keeps everything in its compartment and the compartment is called now. It is a very hard way to live, but it is a good way to tell stories.

Howard: And it's a good way to invite people to enjoy the present tense, to engage a theatre audience in the absolute moment, rather than have them sitting there saying, "Now what did all that mean?" Theatre should be something that happens in the here and now and then is gone. That engages people's imaginations and their ability to remember and mythologise. Which is all that memory is.

Kingsley: It's the greatest acting exercise, having to stay within the moment and not drive yourself and the audience crazy by trying to find some logic, some historical sequence. Actors can get themselves into terrible knots trying to find a logical progression.

Godot is about patterns of human behaviour. I run my lines through with Catherine, my partner, and for the half-hour after we have finished we are talking exactly as Sam writes. Not because we're in a Beckett play, but because he writes so accurately. The way people talk. Little compartments. Little fragments of now. "Shall we go to dinner?" "I don't know." "Are you hungry yet?" "Maybe." It is Beckett dialogue. It is not Beckettian.

Howard: Estragon and Vladimir can't do without each other. If you took one away, the other would evaporate.

Kingsley: The other one wouldn't be himself any more. It is not a question of who is playing Vladimir and who is playing Estragon. I wouldn't want the casting to be different. But it's like asking, which part of the circus donkey are you? Are you the front legs or the back legs? It doesn't really matter. You are the donkey. Where does one lead and the other start?

Howard: It's like a lot of very close, longstanding relationships in real life. I saw a female Vladimir and Estragon today at the Angel. I knew it was them by the way they walked, talked. Their dependency. When you're so engaged with a piece of work, your peripheral vision changes. You start seeing them everywhere. An actor is only as good as the information he or she has. Their imagination and dreams.

Howard: Also as good as the person you are playing with. It's like the way your tennis improves if you play with someone who is better than you are. But I've never been in a play that is quite like this one.

Kingsley: That's true.


Howard: I agree with Peter [Hall], who says that all actors should have played Hamlet and been in Godot. It's such an imaginative landscape for any actor to visit.

Kingsley: We've both been Hamlets and now we're in Godot.

Howard: I think it would be very difficult for actors to do this play unless there was a natural aptitude for each other...........

Kingsley: ....... to be in on the same joke.

Howard: It can't be arranged or structured. There's such an astonishing musicality in the text and rhythms of speaking, intonation and connection, quite apart from what is being said. He uses simple language, which becomes more and more involved. A simple line can carry great complexity with the way it is timed, intoned. The way in which it rubs up against the line before and the line after it. It is a piece of material constantly moving, with 10,000 interweaving strands.

Kingsley: It eats you up. You go home in a take-away bag.

Howard: It's very, very exacting.

Kingsley:Working on your own rhythm, listening constantly for the other person's rhythm. It's completely exhausting.

Howard: All the pauses and silences are very potent and intended. It takes a lot of practice to get them in the right place and then invest them with an intention. You can't just have a dead silence.

Kingsley: Yes. It's like a Mozart or Bartok quartet. It has silences that anticipate what will happen if the silence is broken.

Howard: The other difficulty is looping. It is quite circular. You could start it anywhere and play on until you arrived back at the same place. It is part of its deconstructed power. But within the whole circle there is another series of loops with similar kinds of word patterns that are repeated. It is quite heavy on the old brain box.

Kingsley: Act one and act two appear to go through the same encounters. Two men alone. Two men joining. Two men leaving. The child messenger coming.

Howard: It's going to be an incredible joy to play. If we can capture some of that joy, it won't be regarded as Godot is so often regarded - as the wrong kind of doom. It is life-affirming..........

Kingsley: .......optimistic.........

Howard: The joy of waiting. We all do it. It is the one thing we all have in common. In all plays you have to listen, but here you have to listen like crazy.

Kingsley: There are no resting places. Or if there are, we haven't discovered them.

Howard: The ball goes back and forth over the net. It doesn't stop. The rallies are right up against the net.

Kingsley: We discover every day that we work on this play that it is much bigger than it was yesterday.

Howard: Infinite.

Kingsley: There are circles within circles. The circles are as big as the theatre, as big as London, and then they start to nudge the stars.

Howard: Its components - beauty, pain, humour and fear - are so myriad that if you don't get the right run up to it you diminish it. It requires such certitude.

Kingsley: And abandon. It is wildly but totally accurately off the back foot.

Howard: I hope people will laugh because they will find Vladimir and Estragon completely recognisable. It's like being in a room with a couple of people who have known each other all their lives. After five minutes, they start to make you smile because of the rhythm and repetition of the way they talk and move. It is more than just funny.

Kingsley: There is a tenderness.

Howard: There is a depth to what you are laughing at, because you learn by watching these people. You suddenly exclaim, "That's me! With my mum, or my wife or my best friend."

Kingsley: The beauty is that it embraces ordinariness: cold feet and hunger.

Howard: To be together and survive. Something so simple but so very hard to achieve.

Lyn Gardener

Guardian, 18.6.97

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