In the row of billboards on Lothian Road
in Edinburgh which act as a conduit to the capital's theatre district, the most
striking poster features an image of two men standing side by side. Shabby
suited, bowler-hatted and somewhat officious as they appear, it is the faces
that captivate. Both lived-in and of a certain vintage, neither smiling, they
are by turns world-weary and wide-eyed, giving everything and nothing away.
In the upstairs green room of the Royal Lyceum Theatre that sits on Grindlay
Street just past the billboard-constructed conduit, the same two faces peer out
from a squishy sofa where it's dressed-down occupants sit side-by-side like
bookends. As with the billboard, the two men look tired yet
with accidentally acquired life.
The reason for the latter probably has
something to do with the fact that Brian Cox and Bill Paterson have just come
out of a strip lit rehearsal room where they've spent all day rehearsing
outgoing Royal Lyceum artistic director Mark Thomson's forthcoming production
of Waiting For Godot, Samuel Beckett's classic piece of existential vaudeville -
though the latter word is one they'll dispute – which opens the theatre's
fiftieth anniversary season this week.
Cox was here back in 1965 when the
Royal Lyceum company was founded and has been back intermittently since becoming
a Hollywood star. Paterson too has continued his stage work while becoming an
equally familiar face in film and television.
In Waiting for Godot, Cox and
Paterson play Vladimir and Estragon, two gentlemen of the road waiting for the
elusive saviour that gives the play its title even as they seem to be occupying
an almost barren landscape at the end of the world. With only visitors Pozzo and
Lucky, played here by John Bett and Benny Young, to distract them, Vladimir and
Estragon have a world of possibilities ahead of them.
“We're not making it
like a double act or any of that kind of thing,” Cox says. “We're just
concentrating on the relationships and letting them speak for themselves. We're
not trying to impose any kind of comic business on it. There are comic moments
there, of course, but we're just playing straight. Apart from their own
neuroses, of course.”
Paterson picks up on this.
“They're very different
men,” he says. “There's the optimist and the pessimist, where you have the one
who sees life as possible with options and who's eager to move on, and then you
other who just says we might as well stay here and see what they can
get. That's the difference that comes out if you don't add anything else and
don't impose a big concept on it.”
Concepts have become anathema to Beckett's
work ever since En Attendant Godot appeared in its original French version in
Paris in 1953 prior to Peter Hall's English language production two years
“The play seems to have its own volition,”Cox observes. “It goes
where it wants to go. That's
its brilliance, but it's hard, because Beckett
makes certain demands, and you've just got to acknowledge them. You can't fight
them, and you can’t change them, because he's made it clear that's what he
wants, and you have to understand that.”
Paterson points out that “We get
absolute freedom apart from the one freedom we've taken a bit for
years, in that we can't change a word because we might not like it. What Beckett
does, he gives you a certain amount of, not latitude, but largesse. There's a
largesse in the play that he allows you to have your way, then he squeezes you
technically and forces you back on track. He's very unremitting in that
Paterson nails it when points out that“It's a blueprint for a very
particularly kind of mechanism. You could do endless little routines, but you
don't want to do that. Some of it might fall naturally and might work, but as
soon as you start doing it as a couple of old codgers doing a vaudeville act
who've fallen on hard times, I don't think you need that.”
Surprisingly, despite the best part of a century's acting experience between them, neither
Cox, aged sixty-nine, or Paterson, seventy, have performed Beckett until
“So would you go and see people do a play like this who've never done
something like this before?” Paterson self-mocks.
While they've not worked
much together over the last four decades, the fact that Cox and Paterson, and
indeed Bett and Young, know each other well should enable a certain
“I think it helps both with us and with Benny and with John,”
according to Cox. “The fact that we're all of an age, we all have the
“We all have the same anecdotes,” Paterson interrupts.
“And we all have the same state of exhaustion,” he says.
As Cox observes, Beckett's insular meditations on mortality aren't a young man's
"We're actually the right age to play these parts,” he says. “A lot of
the time the people who play them tend to be too young.”
In veteran critic
Michael Billington's recently published volume, 101 Greatest Plays, Waiting
Godot was noticeably absent, with Billington opting for All That Fall to
represent Beckett. Such a seemingly controversial choice has left its mark on
Beckett scholars and actors alike, with Billington defending his choice on the
grounds that today Godot had been rendered as little more than a boulevard
comedy with no social relevance and with little room for
This was questioned by actress and Beckett champion Lisa
Dwan, who pointed out resonances which Cox and Paterson appear to have picked up
“It's a valid point of view that Billington has,” says a diplomatic
Paterson.. “You could say that the absurd humour it had in the 1950s along with
all the other absurdists like Ionesco and Pirandello and all these guys, they've
been absorbed into the mainstream now. Waiting for Godot was going out at the
same time as The Goon Show, where you had other strange men in strange
environments saying ludicrous non sequiturs to each other.
Python picked up the flame ten years later, so surrealism and non sequitur
comedy is now part of the mainstream, and you can't stop that from happening.
But if you go back and look at it and give it a clear production, it should have
a shining light of freshness about it that shows why it was profound at the time
and has survived the test of history.”
Cox expands on this, bringing
Beckett's play bang up to date as he he points out how “We've got in
present history people crossing desolate landscapes and who have no place to be.
We're living in the middle of it, which is what Lisa Dwan picked up on so
brilliantly. These realities are still with us, the realities of
disenfranchisement and disconnection and being constantly on the move, that's
all talked about in the play. There's this sense of desolation, and they talk
about thousands of corpses.
“So there's lots resonances, but he never dwells
on them. He just allows them a moment
and moves on. And it's quite wonderful,
that aspect of Beckett, because he allows the comic and the poetic to really
exist side by side with a kind of effortlessness. But you have to get it right.
You have to get the tone right. That's the hard part, but you don't need to
reinterpret this play. You just need to get it right.”
Waiting For Godot,Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, September 18-October 10.www.lyceum.org.uk
The Herald, September 15th 2015