Bristol Old Vic’s Associate Director Simon Godwin talks about directing Krapp’s Last Tape and A Kind of Alaska.
What drew you to Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett and what legacy have they left?
Well, this is the first time that I have worked on plays by Pinter and Beckett. In many ways, I am a virgin in my relationship with both of these extraordinary writers. They’re such major influences, that we are all affected by then, I believe, whether consciously or not. They have shaped the culture of theatre and the plays that we see – especially new plays – and today, you really feel their influence. With Pinter, this is concerned with his compression of language and the art of silence, which contains the unspoken.
With Beckett, it’s a modernism of sorts, which reverses the traditional notion of success, and replaces it with a fascination with failure. In doing that, he liberates you into pondering different kinds of characters and different stories and crucially, encourages us to break with our understanding of form – narrative, character, situation – turning each upside down so what is traditionally boring is made interesting and what is traditionally interesting, leaves us wondering whether we are in fact as interested in it as we once we thought we were.
Both Pinter and Beckett possess a meticulousness and an unwavering attention to detail in their writing. Do such writerly quirks hinder or help you as a director?
I like writerly… wrinkles, perhaps, which is where real genius lies. The more detailed, the more quirky, the more wrinkled the writing is, the better for me. Human beings are filled with texture and the marks of experience and it’s through the details of people’s behaviour that we discover who they are.
Pinter and Beckett shared a curiosity about the details. God is in the detail and these two are the finest explorers of that, I think.
But they’re far from the same writer.
They are similar in their quests to ask the fundamental questions about human beings. But they are different – I think there is a kind of containment in Pinter, a determination to see it out; with Beckett, there’s a slightly more Celtic ruggedness, an acceptance of the unknowable, which is hinted at by Pinter, and in particularly within these two plays, but I suppose Beckett goes further in opening up these spaces that are as vast and unknowable as the sea.
Pictured above: Bristol Old Vic Associate Director Simon Godwin
What came first for you, the authors, the plays or the urge to a double bill?
When I directed [the 2010 Bristol Old Vic production of] Faith Healer, flushed with its Irishness and Celtic storytelling, it was a real discovery for me. I’d never done theatre like that before. The playwright, Brian Friel, set up the pathway towards Pinter and Beckett. I was curious about both, and was curious about doing something close up and in miniature that would sit well in Bristol Old Vic’s Studio space. But it was [Bristol Old Vic’s Artistic Director] Tom Morris that first mentioned A Kind of Alaska to me after I’d mentioned I was thinking about doing Beckett, describing it as a very charged play about memory and time. So when I went back to Beckett and Krapp’s Last Tape, it had gained a new significance, especially now I was beginning to contemplate the plays as a pair.
I think, and hope, that one will elevate the other.
How would you describe the general tone of the evening?
I hope the audience will feel a yearning. I hope they’ll feel a sense of search. Our two main characters [Krapp and Deborah] are actively looking for something, so I hope the experience will also be an activating one. It’s a mistake to think the evening will be in any way nostalgic. Both characters are involved in a vivid journey to try and understand themselves through examining their past. I hope therefore that people will feel a sense of relevance and a shared project, a kind of tenderness towards their own lives because that’s what the characters themselves are feeling.
We all experience life in terms of our outer and inner world and we move between the two – we have our outer world of relationships and conversations, and we also retreat into our inner world of feelings, imagination and memory. They’re very stark representations of course, but what Pinter and Beckett are trying to do is to dramatise the universal human condition and the universal movement between the inner and outer, and the private and the public.
Above: Richard Bremmer as Krapp in Krapp’s Last Tape
How do you explore the subtext in a script written by Pinter or Beckett?
In a way, this feels like the concluding part of a trilogy of plays I’ve produced with Bristol Old Vic beginning with Caryl Churchill’s Far Away  and continuing with Faith Healer. All of these writers are masters of the “iceberg play”, where you glimpse a tip but feel the weight of something much bigger. So the process has been to map the iceberg myself, before rehearsals begin, through detailed research and an exploration of the texts, and then to replicate that process with the cast. So I try to lay the ground, then set off once again on a shared voyage with them to uncover all that is not spoken and not seen. It’s a collaborative process, and my thoughts and ideas become enlarged and honed through the efforts and ideas of the company.
Tell us about the cast. You’ve worked with some of them before haven’t you?
Actually, I’ve only worked with one of them before. Marion Bailey, who’s playing Deborah (in A Kind of Alaska), is somebody who I’ve admired for a long time, she’s just been in Mike Leigh’s Grief at the National Theatre where she’s been very well received, she’s worked a lot with Mike Leigh and comes from a tradition of very detailed, truthful performance.
Richard Bremmer is someone I’ve worked with twice before, once in a play for young people at the Almeida in which he had to do a lot of work with an old fashioned tape recorder – which bodes well – and of course, last year in Faith Healer, when he was able to capture that aged tenderness found in his character, Teddy.
Carolyn Backhouse I haven’t worked with before, but she’s done lots of really interesting parts in Chichester and all around the country and she’ll bring a great dignity to her character, Pauline.
Above (l-r): Marion Bailey as Deborah and Carolyn Backhouse as Pauline in A Kind of Alaska
You mentioned the encouragement Faith Healer gave you. Were you surprised at people’s reaction to it?
I was thrilled to bits in Bristol that so many people liked it and so many people came to see it, that was a huge boost to the whole theatre I think, in terms of discovering that we could put on work that’s really rigorous and thought-provoking and in Hong Kong [where the production played earlier this year as part of the renowned Hong Kong Arts Festival], I went through a similar process of initially being quite scared about how it would go down amongst a very mixed audience – some British but many, many local Chinese – there were Chinese subtitles which made the whole thing possible, but again, Brian Friel’s extraordinary way with narrative began to work its magic. You realise that if you empower an audience as much as he does, and ask them to do as much thinking as he does in terms of piecing together the jigsaw, then there’s an activating thrill that seems to transcend cultural barriers. It was a journey through fear, relief and into affirmation about Brian’s power as a writer.
A KIND OF ALASKA/KRAPP’S LAST TAPE (A DOUBLE BILL) ARE AT BRISTOL LD VIC FROM 5 APRIL-12 MAY. TO BOOK TICKETS, CALL 0117 987 7877 OR SEE WWW.BRISTOLOLDVIC.ORG.UK