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Jeffery Kissoon On ... Waiting for Godot

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Jeffery Kissoon is in no doubt: nearly 60 years after its first production Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is still wonderful and strange, a special challenge for actors. He is playing Vladimir in the West Yorkshire Playhouse co-production with Talawa Theatre Company which opens at the Playhouse on February 3rd and then tours. Ian Brown’s production will be the first Waiting for Godot in the UK to be staged with an all black cast – and Jeffery is equally certain of the value of that:

“Now we’re doing it black the play really resonates. Any people who do it bring themselves to it – that’s the nature of Beckett’s play. Somehow the play speaks to things that are buried in the black experience. The play is about outsiders and the black person has always been the outsider once he was taken from his original context. He is the outsider wherever he is, even in his Caribbean homeland. Rastas in Jamaica are always looking for themselves, saying let’s go back to Africa. We have no connection to our origins because it’s been disrupted. Like the tree in Waiting for Godot we are starved of our roots.”

The black experience that he sees reflected in this production of Waiting for Godot is essentially the Caribbean experience. Jeffery himself was born in Trinidad and, after a distinguished career, often in classical theatre, he reverts to a Trinidadian accent for Vladimir alongside Patrick Robinson’s Jamaican Estragon.

“We go seeking for ourselves, we go back to Africa, we do all sorts of studies – some of the greatest researchers I know are people who have come out of the slavery experience. We are looking for ourselves, everyone else on the planet seems to know who they are. So I am looking for the one who will have the necessary information so that I will know who I am – I am waiting for Godot. In the black experience we have had Marcus Garvey, Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Steve Biko, Lumumba – all these guys who had some kind of information so that we, who come out of the slavery experience, can find out who we are. All over the world people defend with their lives what they think to be what they know of themselves!”

This brief sample hardly does justice to the challenging eloquence with which Jeffery lit up the West Yorkshire Playhouse cafe on a drab January afternoon. At the same time, without the twinkling enthusiasm of his delivery, his words may suggest that this production of Waiting for Godot will be portentously political; nothing could be further from the truth. When I raise the point that I have always thought Waiting for Godot a much funnier play than received opinion would claim, Jeffery returns to the West Indian context, but in a much less intense way:

“I really hope that, with us coming from a Caribbean background, with the Caribbean sense of humour, with a Caribbean sense of delivery of the lines, it will heighten the humour within Beckett. We’re certainly finding it very funny already. To hear the lines spoken in a West Indian accent brings out the humour in the play. Certain things just come naturally without having to put it on. “

When I make the point that Waiting for Godot never sits well with Received Standard Pronunciation and is often best suited to an Irish accent, Jeffery manages to find parallels between Irish and West Indian pronunciation: “ting” for “thing”, for example. What is certain is that Beckett demands a more flexible rhythm than you find in “correct” English – and the Playhouse production will get that:

“Patrick and I will be playing it with our island accents, like those old boys you see hanging around under the bridge in the Portobello Road – they’ve been here a long time, coming over in the Windrush days – we call them the Tennant’s Association from what they drink and they’re always in the betting shop – those kind of guys.”

Jeffery Kissoon has long experience of the Royal Shakespeare Company, starred as Antony opposite Kim Cattrall’s Cleopatra at the Liverpool Playhouse on 2010 and is moving on from Leeds to play Caesar in Gregory Doran’s African setting of Julius Caesar at Stratford. So it’s fortunate that his devotion to Shakespeare remains undiminished! His first on-stage experience was as a schoolboy performing speeches by Othello and Shylock in a Shakespearean miscellany to celebrate the 400th anniversary in 1964:

“So my first experience of theatre was Shakespeare and I haven’t ever stopped enjoying Shakespeare – I’m raving about Shakespeare now more than ever because over the years you begin to discover more about Shakespeare and the demands, the requirements you need to play him. His stage directions are written in his verse – he is telling you how to do it.”

But currently his enthusiasm for Waiting for Godot is infectious. Oddly, by a set of curious chances, he has never seen the play in a lifetime in the theatre, and his approach is as fresh as it is thoughtful – and, yes, he is sure it’s a great play:

“To me it is a play for all time. The idea of waiting for the answer to come – we’re all waiting.”


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