The Art of Conversation

Occasionally there is a landmark theatrical event that confirms that good acting is a remarkably simple process.  In Melbourne last week Sir Ian McKellan and Roger Rees delivered the most engaging and delightfully entertaining performances possible in the Theatre Royal Haymarket Production of “Waiting for Godot”.  How did they do it??

Many theatregoers consider ‘Godot’ to be the most boring play ever written.  I have certainly slept through my share of local productions.  So, what was the difference with IAN and ROGER?

It's Simple
The first clear ingredient that contributes to their success is that this is a production that has something simple, active and relevant to say.  Estragon and Vladimir (played by MCKELLAN AND REES) are very clear about why they are having their conversations.  And that means they can listen clearly to the other character, understand what they are trying to say and make a decision about whether they agree or not.  Those are the essential ingredients of any conversation – those are the ingredients that drive our listening and the choices we make.  They also drive story and believability.  Both these performances were very real.

If …

  • you can’t work out why your character is having the conversation you won’t behave and listen in the same way the character does - you will 'act'
  • you can’t listen to the argument that is being directed at your character and assess the information that is presented so that you can make the decision (in that moment) how to say the next line – you will be seen to be 'acting'

It is plain that as a screen actor you can NEVER be seen to be acting.   Unless you can perfect those techniques of listening and responding there is a very high percentage chance that on the screen we will see you ‘acting’ and we wont believe it. 

What is fascinating about this production of “Waiting for Godot” is that here is a theatrical performance that observes the same criteria ON THE STAGE.  Between these two main characters there was a distinct absence of ‘acting’.  What the audience witnessed was a thoroughly engaging and entertaining ‘inter-action.’  The audience laughed at the decisions the characters were making, not the lines they were delivering.  Here was an elegant example of the simple truth that the most important thing an actor can ever do for their character is make the next decision for them.  Sir IAN MCKELLAN was excellent and ROGER REES was even better.  This was exciting theatre.  And in doing this, what many consider to be a really boring text was transformed into an entertaining inter-play.  HOORAY!!!



The mistake many directors make with “Waiting for Godot” is that they direct a story in which nothing happens.  The outcomes of this choice are immediately clear and sleep inducing.  What happens is that within the first 5 minutes the audience realizes nothing is going to happen and we go to sleep.  Telling a story about ‘nothing’ is destined to have the same effect on everyone. 

In fact, this approach ignores one of the essential ingredients of storytelling – that ‘a story has something to say’. 

On this occasion, the director's (Sean Mathias) most significant contribution is to making this collection of conversations a story about how we survive while existing in nothingness.  These characters have nothing, they exist in a ‘nothing environment’ and their hopes are constricted by waiting for something that might be nothing but if it is something, might never come.  They don’t have much.  But they have each other.  So, what do they do?  They just keep testing out whether having each other is enough?  And if this play is to have an optimistic ending it has to be enough, because that is all they have.  This production is a play about friendship.  It is a warm affectionate and optimistic view of life in a bleak world.  The final image is one of friendship.  After the curtain calls the stage is empty except for two well-worn hats sitting comfortably and happily together … friends.

A story of hope delivered by two simple, clear and believable performances provides a very rewarding night at the theatre.

What more do you need!!


May 2010


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