June 19, 2010

Godot Calling

Filed under: 2010,Archive,Interviews

June, 2010

Actor Roger Rees talks to Murray Bramwell about  his current role  in the touring Theatre Royal Haymarket production of Waiting for Godot.

In the three and a half weeks between the end of the London season of Waiting For Godot and beginning previews in Melbourne, where I spoke to him by phone, Welsh-born, US- based actor, Roger Rees has been working his way around the world.

“I’ve come straight from Canada, “ he explains, “I have been working on a sci-fi TV series called Warehouse 13. After the London season finished I went to America to work on something I’m directing, then I came back and did a benefit performance of a program called Sons and Mothers, which I did with Virginia McKenna (she played Gertrude when I played Hamlet) and then I went back to Canada to do this ten days filming in Niagara Falls – in a hydro-electric plant which had been disused for 30 years ! After that I came back to New York for two days before flying to Australia to do Waiting for Godot”.

This peripatetic activity is not new for Rees, whose career has led him to and fro across the Atlantic since the late 1960s. A long-time member of the Royal Shakespeare Company he performed in numerous productions, many of which went on to further success on Broadway. Like the highly-regarded eight hour version of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, in which Rees played the title role from 1980 -82, winning both Tony and Olivier awards.

His first trip to the US, he recalls, was in 1967. “My friend Ben Kingsley and I joined the RSC together and we went to LA with a production of As You Like It and also The Taming of the Shrew – which was Trevor Nunn’s very first production with the company.”

“I returned in 1975 and then later was in a couple of premieres of Tom Stoppard plays. I played Henry in The Real Thing (in 1982) and then followed in 1989 as Kerner in Hapgood which also featured Nigel Hawthorne and Felicity Kendall. They wanted a season in LA and Felicity couldn’t go, so Judy Davis replaced

her. “

It was in the late 80s that Rees took residence in the US. “The people from Cheers saw me in the play and wanted me to join the cast.” Rees played the character Robin Colcord in Cheers for four years and has since continued to work in a  variety of film and TV roles – including, from 2000-2005,  Lord John Marbury in The West Wing.

So, after a long and various career, had Rees ever performed in Waiting for Godot? “No I had never done a Beckett before. Just like for every actor, there is a first time with every playwright.”

The connection for this production was the director Sean Mathias, who Rees first worked with on a US staging of Cocteau’s Les Parents Terrible (renamed Indiscretions) in 1995. “It was a very happy time and Sean is a great director for me. I find him very helpful and he understands my peculiarities.”

Then, last year Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart were doing Godot but there was a chance that Stewart couldn’t do the last two weeks because of other commitments.

“They talked to me about stepping in. Pat Stewart and Ian and I are all great friends so it seemed a natural thing to do. They managed to get out of that problem. But, when it came up that they would do the play again and Patrick couldn’t be available because he was filming the Scottish Play, they turned to me – which was nice “

“Ian (McKellen) and I had last worked together 34 years ago. He played Toby Belch and I played Andrew Aguecheek, he played Andre and I played Tusenbach in The Three Sisters, he played Romeo and I played Benvolio, we also did TheWinter’s Tale and The Alchemist.”

I asked Roger what it was like to perform in a Beckett play.

“I think a career consists of doing whatever comes up next – and making a happy choice if two things come along at the same time ! So Waiting for Godot is just another play. In 1950 this was a peculiar play to people. There wasn’t a settee in the middle of the stage, there wasn’t a maid, or the usual assemblage of drawing room icons. But this play, nowadays, is acceptable to people – there are many plays like it now. In 1950 it was a very remarkable play and it still endures because it is, of course, one of the greatest plays ever written. Why is that so ? I am not sure I can answer that anymore than anybody else. But it does speak of the human condition.”

I also asked him about the changing pace of Beckett productions – if  recent productions have become less painfully slow.

“Comedy has a rhythm,” he explained. “You can’t do it excruciatingly slow. Beckett was asked how long a pause should be and he wouldn’t give an answer. I don’t think there are any strict rules about that. People have said this production is too amusing and I rather think that’s what Beckett had in mind. A clumsy, humorous patina over a deeply distressing anarchic chaos – that seems to be what he was after. “

“He loved Laurel and Hardy, he loved Buster Keaton, and the Irish comics and the French comics. He loved two people on one stage together. He’s laying into that friendship (between Vladimir and Estragon) an extraordinary amount of humanity I think.”

After the current tour of Australia and New Zealand Roger Rees returns briefly to work on his production in New York before continuing on with Godot in South Africa. It is an ongoing commitment for some time yet. “Who knows ?” marvels Rees, “a gentleman the other night asked when will we be coming to India,  which I thought was very thrilling. Hopefully we will be able to perform in some of the townships in South Africa, maybe in a gymnasium or something, or under a tree – who knows ?”

Waiting for Godot, directed by Sean Mathias and featuring Roger Rees, Ian McKellen, Matthew Kelly and Brendan O’Hea, opens its Adelaide season at Her Majesty’s on June 9.

“Godot Calling” The Adelaide Review, No 364, June, 2010, p.20.

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