Merlin Betts interviewed Patrick Kealey of Theatre Nation about what was going to be their upcoming production of Waiting for Godot. 

You’ve picked Hamlet and now Waiting For Godot as Theatre Nation’s relatively ‘mainstream’ theatrical debuts. Are you developing a theme here or is it just that such plays are more likely to get the funding required to produce them? Or both?

Further, you seem to enjoy putting on quite meaty plays: socially and even philosophically substantial performances. Who do you think your audience are for these productions, and how does this relate to your manifesto? Will or have young people in Hastings be(en) empowered by these plays and their themes? 

I choose plays for the company based on several factors. Firstly is it a play that resonates personally with me, is it interesting and challenging enough to keep me creatively engaged for the entire rehearsal period? In other
words, does it have interesting themes and layers that repay exploring for me as director, the actors and the rest of the creative team? As I get older my time is precious, I’m aware of how finite our lives really are. I don’t feel
like I have any time to waste.

Not surprisingly the way great writers have dealt with that issue of human mortality – poetically philosophically and dramatically – interests me greatly. I have a personal antipathy for the most part to issue-led plays. A social contemporary issue dealt with in the hands of a master playwright can be a thing of awesome power (Miller for example). On the whole though I seem to be drawn to plays that speak to our general human condition. Leave me to figure out the message. I said to someone recently “I can imagine Waiting for Godot landing today on some literary editor’s desk and them saying ‘I just don’t get it. What’s the point? Nobody learns anything’”.

Do I choose plays because they might get funding. Honestly? Yes I might choose one play over another because when we come to promote it, it will have name recognition. One has to sometimes be both pragmatic and strategic. But that would only be one part of a conversation Tom my colleague and I might have – along with the particular challenge of testing your creative wits against the classics. You’re following in often illustrious footsteps. I rather relish the challenge of seeing what we can bring. A friend I deeply respect described our Hamlet as “brave, bold and innovative” – that’s good enough for me.

As to where the audience for these kinds of plays are. The simplistic answer is of course “They’re everywhere”. And sometimes they don’t know it yet. I was a six-year-old working class boy from a Catholic Irish background when my school brought all our class to a performance of A Christmas Carol at the Coventry Belgrade theatre. I was hooked for life. I saw Peter Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream aged 16 (I bunked off school to catch it) and instinctively knew I’d discovered what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

So I believe theatre is a vital enduring public forum. There are fewer and fewer such forums available for us to gather, share, question and delight in our common humanity with the power of attention theatre at its best demands. I believe many people crave that experience. Digital life provides thin gruel for the soul. I’d say there’s an audience for serious theatre here locally who are not adequately catered for – I would hasten to add that I think that situation is changing rapidly. Hastings is phenomenally creative and talented, the arts and arts-loving community is wide. I’m proud our company is contributing. But not everyone can afford to pay London prices to sit crammed in the cheap seats in the West End plus train fare etc. Our manifesto is to create great theatre of the highest professional quality here. No more cramped overpriced West End seats at London prices with added train fare. We’re on your doorstep folks!

Godot [was going to] be on at the White Rock in Hastings, as well as a number of other locations in the South. Is there any particular reason why the White Rock worked for your Hastings show rather than other venues?

Godot at White Rock is a risk but an exciting one and also I hope a statement of intent for them as well as us. We want a White Rock audience (whatever that means) to take a chance on us. For some it might be something they wouldn’t bother to check out ordinarily if it was in a smaller venue. By putting this on a bigger stage we’re saying we’d like to share Beckett’s Godot and work like it with a wider audience.

I can’t emphasise too often just how funny Beckett is, we have a company of brilliantly talented experienced performers who are natural clowns to a man and will do Beckett justice. So I say “Go on, give it a try, you might really be really delighted and surprised to find out how hilarious death, loneliness and existential angst can really be”.

There have been many different interpretations of how the characters in Godot should look, and who they are. What thoughts do you have on costume for your production? 

Do your actors have any unusual takes on who the characters are? Others have assumed Estragon has Alzheimers Disease, or played Lucky as though he had Parkinson’s.

For yourselves, is Godot a play in which nothing happens, twice, or something else? A kind of metaphysical journey perhaps? Racine says “all creativity consists in making something out of nothing”. Is Godot just a good opportunity for performers to show off their skills, and make a story where one wouldn’t otherwise exist? 

I like to think that Beckett would be open to some innovation in interpreting his work in the 21st century. One must be respectful of his genius of course. As to what it all means ‘Life. No more. No less’. Two old men pass the time beneath a tree blathering on about nothing in particular. Another pair of old men turn up and distract them for a bit. Then it gets dark. And the same thing happens the next day. Until one day you will die. And it was all for….what? We live in an age of distraction. What could be more perfect as a mirror of our times than a play that boils that theme down to its very essence? And not a message in sight. Make of it all what you will. And not a smart phone in sight.

As a Hastings-based company we have an incredible pool of talent to draw on. Not least Leigh Dyer whose work as a master sculptor needs no introduction and whose work is playful as well as functional and beautiful. He seemed a natural fit for our tree design. I was genuinely honoured he said “yes” to us. His work is worth the price of admission alone. I get the chance to collaborate on movement with Yumino Seki, who has a deserved international reputation for her extraordinary Butoh movement. Jonathan Richardson is a master of light. Peter Mould has photographed most of our productions and captures theatrical moments like no one I know.

The two Sams. Sam Lewis is our brilliant young costume designer. I said to him “Beckett’s set for Godot is like an abstract space. The clothes of the characters are the landscape – they’re already becoming part of the earth. They’re in one sense already dead and decomposing in the earth”. And his solution is an elegant one, screen-printing natural forms onto the costume fabric. Sam Sharples is our videographer. Again someone with an impeccable eye for composition and flow in filming and editing.

That all of these gifted creatives live in my small town is a source of enormous pleasure to me. One of the things I’m proudest of is I get the opportunity as Theatre Nation to bring them all together on a wonderful project like Godot. And I can’t finish without mentioning Tom Daldry, my brilliant colleague and co-producer in Theatre Nation, who is finding and expressing his own extraordinary voice as a playwright and has the potential to make a real name for himself. All of these great inspiring visionary talents live in Hastings. When we take Godot on tour we are showcasing not only our company Theatre Nation but the artistic brilliance of our town.

I should add that Otti Albietz has composed some incidental music for our promotional film. Another bright young Hastings talent.

In part recalling your Hamlet production, what do you think about Beckett’s resistance to casting female actors in the play? 

Beckett was adamant that women should not play Godot. I would happily have considered casting a female actor. A highlight of my recent theatre-going life was seeing Glenda Jackson as Lear and of course Emily Carding has played Hamlet both for Theatre Nation and as a solo performer to much acclaim. However Godot is finely balanced as a piece. If the women played men I don’t see why not, but I’m not sure if the characters could be played as women. Susan Sontag in her famous version in Sarajevo under siege during the Balkan conflict did have a female Pozzo. But her version was sui generis with several Vladimirs and Estragons and they only played the first act. I’d certainly be interested to see an all-female version. An Italian theatre company tried it and the Beckett estate sued them.

The White Rock is closed due to government advice in dealing with Covid-19. What do you think will happen to the play? 

Many of Beckett’s plays (Endgame in particular) grew out of his experiences of war and life on the edge. Still a writer for our times – more than ever.

I feel to have been working on Beckett at such a time has brought out many insights and observations about life, art, human existence and society. Questions which a lot more of society may now come to consider in our new political social and economic paradigm.

HIP will let you know if this performance is re-scheduled once the lockdown begins to ease. 

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