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godot

Few directors alive have enjoyed as close a connection to the work of Samuel Beckett as has Anthony Page. Forty-five years ago, Page staged Waiting for Godot’s first-ever uncensored production in London, opening on December 30, 1964 at the Royal Court Theatre, where Page served as artistic director. This “unexpurgated version” not only had the lines that the Lord Chamberlain had cut restored, but it’s a production that Page remembers fondly because he actually worked beside the enigmatic playwright for three weeks. In fact, in a loose sense, Beckett’s Godot and Page’s theatre career have led parallel lives. Godot last played on Broadway in 1957 when it was revived with an all-black cast just seven months after the original production, starring Bert Lahr and E.G. Marshall, closed. In the U.K. scarcely a year later, meanwhile, Page was named assistant director at the Royal Court Theatre—the same venue where, during one of several stints as its artistic director, Page revived Godot. Reflecting on the legacy of Beckett as well as the challenges of returning Godot to Broadway, Page makes clear that not only are his ties to the inimitable playwright strong (he also staged Beckett’s Not I at the Royal Court in 1973) but deeply personal, too. Today, Page is perhaps best known to New York audiences for his Tony-winning direction of the 1997 Broadway revival of A Doll’s House and subsequently for helming two masterly revivals: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 2005, for which Godot actor Bill Irwin won a Tony; and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (2003). He spoke to Front & Center as early rehearsals for Roundabout’s production, with Nathan Lane, John Goodman, and John Glover as well as Irwin, got under way.

Godot

Bill Irwin and Nathan Lane in Waiting for Godot.

FRONT & CENTER: Waiting for Godot is produced all the time around the world. How is your Godot different from any other?

ANTHONY PAGE: I don’t think about it that way. I worked on Godot with Samuel Beckett in 1965—he came to the Royal Court for three weeks. I was in my 20s then, so I was listening and learning. He was open and flexible with the actors, saw what they could or couldn’t do, and worked with the personalities that were there. And he didn’t theorize the play—he’d written it by hearing the voices in his head and said he didn’t know what was coming next as he wrote. With any play, things change depending on who you work with. Up to now my problem has been getting everyone into the same play and the same style. I think we’ve arrived at that now, so we’re discovering a lot about it. It’s a very human, touching, funny play with strong emotional lines.

It’s emotional because the characters intuit the futility of their situation?

More that the relationship between the main characters is like that of a married couple: sometimes hostile, sometimes tender and sometimes quarrelsome. It’s probably the freest of Beckett’s plays, with people moving about the whole time. In his other work, people do tend to be stuck in wheelchairs or sand heaps, but there is choreography in Godot. And I’m being freer than some of the stage directions Beckett wrote. With him there’s always a vision. He was a meticulous writer and as a man he was very emotional.

I don’t think people realize that.

Perhaps. Although if a play is done properly, the play itself releases emotion. Eight years after I directed that 1965 Godot, I directed Beckett’s Not I, which consists of a mouth in space, played at that time by Billie Whitelaw. I’d gone to Paris and had asked Beckett to read the play out loud so I’d know what it should sound like. He gave an incredible reading, full of panic.

He could just pick up the play and read it on a dime?

He could. We met on the café floor and went upstairs where it was empty and I asked if he could read it. And he read it wonderfully on the spot. But when he arrived in London he was rigid about every word and pause being right, which for me made it difficult to rehearse. I also thought it was inhibiting Billie, so I actually asked Beckett not to come for a few days, which he wasn’t pleased about, nor was anyone else at the theatre. I thought it was necessary, though. I felt that in the time between Godot and Not I he had changed. He’d come to believe the writer should be dominant in rehearsal. You have to balance between creative and reverent.

As too much reverence can inhibit the process?

Well, look, people can do absolutely mad things with Beckett’s work and do. I’m responsible about it because I’ve worked with him.

“It’s a very funny play with strong, emotional lines.”

But due to that, do you feel him peering over your shoulder?

I did feel inhibited on this production to begin with. The first sort of betrayal, if you will, is we have a set—Beckett wanted on an empty stage. Frankly, Studio 54 has a huge stage and I felt we needed to enclose the actors, to project the words out a bit. It’s not showy—sort of white rocks and a road.

What do you say in rehearsal when an actor in a Beckett play asks “Why?” with regard to a particular moment?

Before you direct a play, I think you have to know the script very well. I mean, very well. And I think you have to keep in mind that each actor brings something unique. That said, if you’re asked “Why?,” don’t waffle if you don’t know the answer. Maybe you tell them what you think. Maybe the actor discovers something by asking it. There’s so much about instinct that you can’t factor in. Yet while you can’t plan too much ahead, you must plan carefully enough to know the landmarks of a play. And you have to be Zen. Once you’ve got them free enough to play off instinct, you can check where things are going wrong or encourage if things are going right.

How do you invite actors to a “free” place?

I trained with Sandy Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse, who to me was a kind of guru. And I also studied directing with Hilton Edwards at the Gate Theatre in Dublin, who believed in writing down all the moves of a play, giving them numbers and imposing that on a cast. Well, after Meisner, I understood you can’t do the moves until actors know their intentions and motives. That’s why I sit at a table and like to read a play first. You create a good atmosphere, then you start shaping things as people relax.

How do you think contemporary audiences will respond to Godot?

I think the play has changed for the world in terms of the idea of a godless universe, that there’s nothing beyond death. It was more shocking in those days. As you get older, the play probably becomes more real, I suppose. As you get older, you get nearer the end, so it probably has more relevance.

And what does Godot ultimately mean? Do you think Beckett himself knew?

While I think he wrote the play out of his subconscious, I’m sure he knew exactly what it was about. But he wanted to orchestrate the play as he wished.


Leonard Jacobs is theatre critic for the New York Press and edits The Clyde Fitch Report, a blog about arts and politics.

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