Samuel Beckett's masterpiece Waiting For Godot has something of a reputation as an inscrutable piece of theatre. But this hasn't stopped Portsmouth-based actors Nick Downes and Patric Howe from fulfilling a long-standing ambition to tackle the play.
'It’s all about atmosphere and ambiguity,' says Nick. 'People might have this concept of it as this difficult and very deep and meaningful play, but there’s as much meaning there as you want to find. The play absolutely works as an entertainment, whether you want to look for meanings in it or not.
'It’s moving and sad in parts, but it’s also incredibly funny. The other myth that might travel around with it is that it’s quite a gloomy play, and quite the opposite is true.'
The play is Beckett's translation of his own French original, En attendant Godot, and made its London debut in 1955. After a difficult opening the critical tide soon turned in its favour, and in 1990 it was voted the 'most significant English language play of the 20th century' in a poll conducted by the British Royal National Theatre.
The play is being put on by Delta Head, which as Nick explains: 'It's essentially me and Patric. For most local companies it’s not all that attractive to do because the cast is so small, so we decided we’d go under our own steam – create a little production company and go from there.
'We’d done at least two previous small-cast plays, one with just the two of us – The Bench, which is two guys playing four-handed piano, the two of us at one piano, which is strangely like the Godot situation!
'We’ve done quite a bit together, we like working with each other and we trust each other, which is really important.'
Nick plays Estragon while Patric is Vladimir. But it's not Nick's first crack at the play.
'I’ve done it before, but I was probably really too young to make the most of it, but I’ve always liked it.
'A few years ago, a little group of us, including me and Patric went to see the one in London with Sir Ian Mckellen and Roger Rees, and Matthew Kelly as Potzo who was also magnificent. I think idly on the way back someone said we should do this play, we both love it.
'It was Patric who eventually said: "You know Nick, the clock’s ticking, if we’re going to do it, let’s do it."'
Nick also praises their 'excellent director,' Matt Beresford. 'I’ve worked with Matt on several projects in the past in London, and I knew if he was willing to do it, he would be the best man for the job. He’s absolutely central to the job of putting the play on, and if it’s any good at all, we like to think it is, it’s as down to him as much as the cast.'
When it came to deciding who would take which lead, the pair found the slipped easily into their respective roles.
'The last time I did it I played Vladimir,' says Nick, 'and that was pretty much perfect casting because the guy I was working with on that was Estragon, and this time around, I think temperamentally, it’s the right way round.
'Matt at one point said: "Think about it the other way round, try it the other way round", and we read through it, but I don’t think I’m insulting Pat behind his back, he’s quite a bit Didi – Vladimir – he likes to have things nailed down a bit, and I’m a bit more Estragon.'
The cast is rounded out by James Kirby, Vincent Adams and Owen Pollard.
With the play being put on in the Square Tower, they have decided to have some fun with the staging.
'We’ll be doing it in traverse, so we’ll have the audience on two sides. The interesting thing about this is that not only where you’re sitting in the audience is that you’re seeing the play, you’re also seeing the faces and reactions of other audience members’ faces.
'It's an interesting dynamic in a play like Godot when every so often the question comes up of what did he say? What did he mean? Is this funny? Is this tragic?
'And it also suggests a road, which is the first stage direction, that it happens on a country road.'
Since the play's debut, it has been the subject of reams of analysis and theorising, whether it be political, religious or philosphical, much of which left Beckett bemused.
'Beckett himself said don’t come and analyse it. Say you listen to a piece of instrumental music, or see a painting, you don’t necessarily think first thing, I like this, but what does it mean?
'And I think Godot is very much like that, it’s like a piece to enjoy, to watch, to be surprised by, to be amused by, to be touched by, and leave it at that.
'Beckett was very clear, he said, I have no idea what happens to these men before the action you see, or after the action you see, and I have no interest in speculating.
'It’s like an installation - It starts like this, these things happen, and it ends like that.'
The Square Tower, Old Portsmouth