By David Hennessy
The Samuel Beckett classic Waiting for Godot is being re-imagined at Arcola Theatre, London with the comedy double act Totally Tom, Tom Palmer and Tom Stourton, in the central roles. This is a break from tradition with aging actors usually playing Vladimir and Estragon, the two characters who wait in vain for the title character that they have never met, as director Simon Dormandy looks to modernise a play presented as a period piece and focus more on its comedy.
“Obviously there were a lot of hurdles to get past with the Beckett estate and rights for the play but the Beckett estate seemed to be fine,” Tom Palmer tells The Irish World. “It was a bit touch and go about whether they would be okay about it being two younger drifters as opposed to the traditional 60, 70 year old characters. The main idea, as long as they were close to death, was more important than their actual age so we just have to be very ill.
Tom Stourton adds: “The estate have been very kind in giving that leeway, we’re playing two younger guys who have reached the end of the road, are homeless.”
Samuel Beckett’s estate are never usually keen to allow productions that veer away from the late playwright’s original writing in any way. A production with female actors has been closed down in the past.
Tom Palmer who plays Vladimir continues: “I think it works in our favour that we’re playing it as young drifters because the tragic reality of life for rough sleepers is that life expectancy is around 42.”
The audience join the men in anticipation of Godot. What Godot will offer exactly is in some doubt but down on their luck Vladimir and Estragon are hopeful although realistic: “Godot represents anything we could have hoped for to make life bearable and there’s plenty of back story that we’ve created that the audience won’t be totally party to. Godot is someone who offers a job, food, comfort, some respite to this horrible situation we find ourselves in. Vladimir’s got this terrible infection, Estragon’s got excruciating pain in his feet, they sleep in ditches, they get beaten up the whole time so Godot represents this idea of some respite from this world. By the second act of the play, it becomes clear to them that Godot may not exist, there’s all this paranoia going around.
“We’ve done a lot of research into how realistic this might be. There’s lots of talk in the play about handing over “our rights” to Godot and we investigated it a bit and there are these terrible stories of people traffickers who scoop up homeless people off the streets and drive them out to farms and they end up working, wasting their lives away there while these guys hold onto their social security details or passports or whatever. In the back of our minds, that’s kind of what we’re thinking about: Is it a good idea that we’ve signed ourselves to this guy?
“There’s no getting away from the fact that the play is pretty bleak so we can’t make it a total pantomime comedy but that’s what has been really exciting about it, is trying to find those terrifyingly poignant moments and puncturing them with comedy and vice versa.”
Totally Tom were nominated for the Fosters Edinburgh Comedy Newcomer Award in 2011 and made their television debut on Channel 4’s Comedy Lab. They can both be seen in Siblings, the forthcoming BBC com edy where Tom Stourton plays the male lead.
In the play, the men encounter Pozzo who holds his slave Lucky by a rope around his neck. This production is less concerned with the symbolism the play is rich in: “We’re trying to play it real,” Palmer explains. “We’re trying to avoid an abstract artistic performance which has been done in the past. Beckett did it as more of an art installation thing, drawing out the symbolism. We’re playing it as naturalistic as possible.”
Although there is little action, Waiting for Godot has been voted the most significant English language play of the 20th century. Tom Stourton says: “Someone told me that he (Beckett) used to tell his actors that they weren’t being boring enough when he was directing them so I think it’s about embracing the static nature of the play and that does put far more strain on it, you’ve got to make things interesting without doing a lot. That said, there’s quite a lot of physical moments within it, in the stage direction there’s lots of rolling around, falling over, boots falling off and people kicking each other and bags falling on feet. These two people are stuck but you have to make those big physical moments act as relief, really making them count and have fun with them.”
Among the many productions of the play is a high profile one where Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart played the main roles. Are Totally Tom conscious of previous productions? “Only in the sense of feeling daunted,” Tom Stourton answers. “I suppose you don’t get much bigger than Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. I just hope that the people that have seen that production that come to the show will still feel that the essence of the play is there because it is going to be so different. It’s a mammoth play, it has a lot of baggage and hopefully with a new interpretation people will feel it still has a relevance to young people.”
For the full interview, see the May 3 Irish World.
Waiting for Godot is at Arcola Theatre May 7- June 14. For more information, go to: www.arcolatheatre.com or call 020 7503 1646.