James Laurenson takes a well-earned break from rehearsals in Clapham to discuss the latest production from the Peter Hall Company, Samuel Becket's Waiting For Godot. The Theatre Royal Bath hosts this exemplary play which, for Peter Hall, represents a landmark in his professional career. It is fifty years since Hall first directed Godot in 1955. A child prodigy no doubt!
Laurenson is adamant that this is no revival or rehash of this famous production: "Peter did do a production at the Old Vic in the 1980s as well -- of course these other productions will affect this one -- but this Godot is very much for today." Laurenson assures me that Kevin Rigdon, the designer, has created a new world for Becket's clown-like characters to inhabit.
Laurenson himself is playing Vladimir , a part he first performed at university in New Zealand way back in 1960. "Not that any of the lines have come back to me from then!," Laurenson muses. It is the complicated structure of Becket's play which dominates any actor's approach to his part. "It's this structure which is so important to Peter -- the rhythm of the lines -- he sees the text like a piece of music -- hence he insists we have learnt the lines of the play before we even start rehearsals."
It is this need to be off the book from the start of the rehearsal process, something that more and more actors are commenting on when talking about their work, that Laurenson finds as a recent but welcome phenomenon. "I worked with Michael Grandage at the Donmar four years ago and it was the first time a director had insisted I learn the play in advance. Actors in the olden days used to say they were 'off the book' and I'd think I was glad I'd nev er been required to do that. Now, it is becoming much more common."
Laurenson describes those three months prior to rehearsals when he slaved away on learning Godot : "I'd wake up at nights in a sweat -- come to think of it, I still do!" The effect of this hard preliminary work is to free the actor from so many constraints: "It is a complicated process -- to learn it all -- but it allows the actor to make such huge advances in the rehearsal room from day one." Laurenson confides that he knows a lot of actors who don't like it this way; some even refuse to work like it: "To me, its just like a new discipline, and it is very rewarding."
Of course, we discuss Peter Hall's directorial technique. "I've been working for Peter for about eighteen months now. Went to the States with As You Like It -- that was great fun, playing Brooklyn and Los Angeles . Peter is terrific -- a great disciplinarian -- he concentrates on the structure of the language -- once we've got that, the armature is there to explore the rest of the play. In a way, Peter is actually vaguely conducting Godot -- I suppose it comes from working on so many operas -- he is very text-focused -- and searches for the rhythm, the music and the structure."
This quest for music and structure seems as suited to Becket as to Shakespeare: "It's really wonderful -- so much of our performance comes out of this structure -- it doesn't inhibit or bar exploration or expression -- it releases it." The result, as Laurenson enthuses, is a "very funny play -- with lots of comic stuff in it": "We play characters who make each other laugh in order to cope with the horrors of the world -- it makes for a really comic evening."
Now half way through their fourth week of rehearsals, and with all the pre-rehearsal preparation under his belt, I ask if Laurenson feels confident with his Vladimir : "Let's say it's like crossing a frozen river -- plenty of broken up pieces of ice flow are gradually coming together -- but there are several crevasses still to fall into!" Waiting For Godot might represent a frozen river, treacherous for the unwary actor to traverse, but with Peter Hall as guide and an eminent and committed cast, Laurenson most definitely sees this as an adventure worth taking. Bath is in for a theatrical treat.
Kevin Quarmby © 2005