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Why race doesn’t matter

HERE COME THE BOYS: (l-r) Guy Burgess, Cornell S. John, Jeffery Kissoon, Fisayo Akinade and Patrick Robinson star in the production

KNOWN AS a theatrical modern masterpiece, Waiting For Godot has cemented its place in the long history of iconic theatre. That is precisely why Talawa theatre company has decided to produce an all-black version of the play.

Written by Irish author Samuel Beckett, the play, which premiered in 1953, focuses on two men, Vladimir and Estragon, who wait haplessly for the arrival of someone called Godot.

Heading the cast alongside Trinidadian actor Jeffery Kissoon is Patrick Robinson, best known for his role as Martin Ashford in the BBC medical drama Casualty. Taking on the role of Estragon, the actor admitted that there can be immense pressure when reproducing a classic, so much so that other actors prefer not to star in them.

“There is always pressure when you’re acting in a renowned play, because people have their own preconceived ideas,” says the 48-year-old, who also starred in The Bill. “Of course there’s going to be pressure to make your version the definitive one. That’s why a lot of actors like to get into new plays because they are establishing something.”


HAT'S OFF TO THEM: Jeffery Kissoon (left) and Patrick Robinson

Known as a tragicomedy, the play has acquired as many interpretations as it has audience views. Though not traditionally known as a ‘black play’, Robinson believes it doesn’t make any difference if Waiting For Godot is performed by a black cast because the story is universal.

“The play lends itself to lots of different races, that’s why it’s an incredible piece of work,” he says. “Any piece of writing that is universal in terms of the story, people will accept and understand.”

This is a sentiment shared by Talawa’s artistic director Patricia Cumper, who chose to use the play in celebration of the theatre company’s 25th anniversary because she believes it mirrors the black British experience.

“This is a play that I really admire,” she says. “As I read it, I saw in the language and characters a lot that I thought related to my own experience.”


VISION: Patricia Cumper

As an organisation, Talawa, Britain’s best-known black theatre company has produced a few firsts within theatre. They have also consistently gone against convention when choosing plays to add to their repertoire.

“The founder [of Talawa] Yvonne Brewster always did versions of the classics,” says Cumper. “We have done King Lear and The Importance of Being Earnest, so I looked around for a classic to commemorate what she had done and I thought a modern classic would be a good choice.

“I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to give a bunch of actors a chance to play roles they probably wouldn’t get to play otherwise.”

If ever there was a play that could be described as theatrical marmite, it would by this one. Over the decades, critics have either loved or hated Waiting For Godot, but each performance is open to new interpretations.

Cumper says: “I am really confident people who know the play will see it in a new light.”

Another all-black adaptation of the play ran in New Orleans in 2009. And Cumper believes that a parallel can be drawn between the play and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the American city in 2005.


ACROSS THE POND: US actors Kyle Manzay (left) and Wendell Pierce starred in Waiting for Godot when it ran in New Orleans in 2009

“[Waiting for Godot] ran in New Orleans after Katrina,” Cumper recalls. “At the time, I thought, there is something significant about the idea of people finding ways to pass time, while they try and engage with an authority that will not show itself.”

Waiting for Godot is currently running at the West Yorkshire Playhouse (ends February 25). It will then goes on tour: The Albany, London, March 6-10; Birmingham Repertory Theatre March 13-17; Theatre Royal, Winchester, March 27-31; New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, April 3-7.Ffor more information visit www.talawa.com

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