Waiting for Godot

Actor Jeffrey Kissoon tells Femke Colborne why he’s excited to be taking a different approach to Samuel Beckett’s famous play Waiting For Godot

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The West Yorkshire Playhouse is about to stage a production of Samuel Beckett’s classic play Waiting For Godot with a difference: the cast will be made up entirely of black actors. The play, in which two homeless men wait on a bare road for a mysterious man named Godot, is a co-production with the London-based Talawa Theatre Company, the UK’s leading black-led theatre company.

According to Trinidadian actor Jeffery Kissoon, who will play Vladimir alongside Patrick Robinson’s Estragon, the all-black cast will shed new light on the play’s complex and far-reaching themes.

“Waiting For Godot explores the human condition,” he says. “Most people are waiting for something – whether it’s God, Jesus or simply an answer to all the questions we have, and we all have a feeling that when he or it comes our questions will be answered, we will be saved.”

Kissoon believes the themes of Beckett’s play are so universal that different treatments can give rise to endless new interpretations.

“You can’t say it is a play about anything,” he says. “But at the same time it is about everything and it can apply to everyone – you, me, every colour, every race, whoever. Beckett tells us very little about the characters and their history, so our imagination has to fill that in.

“That’s why it has been done in so many different ways, with different races, women actors and even as a cartoon.”

However, Kissoon also believes the all-black cast will also force audiences to contemplate some very specific images. There are many references in Waiting For Godot to war, conflict and suffering, and in particular to bones. These are usually interpreted as references to the Second World War, which had concluded only three years before Beckett began working on the play. But for Kissoon, this imagery has a different meaning.

“There are many images in the play that are reminiscent of the master-slave relationship, and of course that automatically resonates,” he says. “It is in-built in our memory. There are also many references to skulls and the dead, and for me that conjures up an image of the ocean filled with bones from the transatlantic slave trade. Every nation has their own pictures in their mind, and you can certainly see it from a black perspective. We have many of these images in our history. We can shine a light on that experience.”

Kissoon has taken part in many all-black productions throughout his career, which has included film and television work as well as appearances with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Later this year he will play the title role in the RSC’s all-black Julius Caesar, which will be set in Africa, exploring themes of dictatorship and political control.
He says all-black productions have a particular appeal for him.

“As an actor, you are not always in that environment and often you are the only black person in the company.”
He also hopes that such productions might help to attract more black audiences to the theatre. “There are many excellent black actors,” he points out.

“The black audience should support them. Maybe they are alienated by the idea of coming to the theatre; and it’s partly because our emphasis has always been different. We are not unused to theatre, but we don’t want to examine our own existence quite so much. Caribbean people like to party.”

Kissoon has never performed in Waiting For Godot before – in fact, he has never seen a performance of the play. But having studied it in depth and immersed himself in its bizarre logic, he is hooked.

“It is a gift in terms of the meaning, history and content,” he says. “It is a pleasure to be doing this play and I hope we can fulfil the challenge and touch everyone.”

Waiting For Godot, 3-25 February, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

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Waiting for Godot

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