Waiting for Answers: In conversation with Samuel Finzi and Wolfram Koch

Samuel Finzi and Wolfram Koch recently featured alongside one another as Vladimir and Estragon, the troubled twosome at the heart of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The two discuss the implications of staging Beckett’s challenging drama and its colossal value in exploring the relationship between drama and audience in the theatre. The production has been met with astounding admiration- it is a true spectacle- a credit to Beckett’s own explorations on the nature of theatre. Finzi and Koch discuss the play with Rivka Jacobson at the Deutsches Theater, Berlin.

SF: I think it’s the first time I’ve done Beckett- no, no, it’s not the first. I did Ohio Impromptu, a small production. Waiting for Godot was planned long before that- five or six years, at least. It had to be done- for Wolfram and me…

WK: For me it’s world literature. It’s one of the best plays ever; it comes after Shakespeare. As actors we are searching and searching. Each night is a different performance….no one is ever sure in this play; we are uncertain on the stage. We’re just looking for Beckett- that’s all.

SF: As far as I’m concerned, the actors are the most important element in theatre. We are the people who defend the play every night on stage. If it’s a bad performance, we die one hundred times with shame… so we are defending the work. The beautiful thing about Beckett is that one does not have to explain characters- it is impossible to argue that Vladimir is this or that. During the three hours you can lead him in different directions, his identity is constantly mutating. I’m not talking about improvisation. I’m talking about diverting the character according to the energy of the moment, the spirit of the moment. Of course, we are strict about the text itself- we do not change the text.

WK: The director Dimiter Gotscheff too, injects this energy onto the play.

SF: Absolutely. [The stage incorporates a large crater in the centre, around which the characters saunter]. The idea of the crater- it’s a sort of crater- it’s about disappearing. Disappearing, being swallowed into this vacuum onstage. When we talk about the dead, you see the dead down there, underneath. It’s genius, it’s a stage without a centre. So you cannot go to the centre and just have a monologue, you’re always around it. It’s great. A huge obstacle you have to confront all the time you’re onstage. On the one side, it is, as I said, an obstacle, but on the other side it provokes your fantasy. You have to be focused; you have to always think about ‘where do I position myself in the space?’ – in order to, not only to be seen, but to work for the whole composition of the four or sometimes two characters on stage – the tension between them.

WK: It’s like in the fairground. You have the motorbikes going round, it’s the same physical concept. Running against gravity, running against death – so it’s a little bit Beckett. In the second part, you have a long part talking about all the deaths, all the burying deaths, we’re talking about millions of deaths – we’re standing on the grave and talking about the voices, the dead voices we’re hearing, all the dead bodies, and we try to go out on this. And it’s quite – very sad, yeah.

SF: It simply comes down to the principle of invention- drama is about playing with and inventing stuff onstage. I’m pretty sure Beckett was just observing a rehearsal and just saw two actors kidding around with their hats and thought ‘AHA!’ and put it down onto paper. In Germany directors and actors allow themselves to do things here you would never see in London, Paris or New York. Can you imagine such a production in London for instance? Without hats? And props? No- they all rely on naturalism. There is a completely different system here, a completely different approach to theatre. The theatre is funded by government subsidies, so there are greater possibilities to make challenging theatre here compared with anywhere else. Far more than theatre elsewhere, which is governed and dictated by the income from ticket sales.

German theatre is certainly more challenging for its audience, as well as its actors. as a member of the audience I wouldn’t like to be taught what to think, I would like to have my own choice. So what I’m seeing has to give me the opportunity to feel like that, to give me hints, to give me links, to leave me alone with my own thoughts and understanding of what I’m seeing.

WK: All of the Beckett dramas are thinking about theatre. It’s not only a play; it’s a play about acting and audience, so it’s a nice mixture. If you have a good piece, for example I was playing The Persians of Aeschylus here for ten years, and it’s a good play, and you find every conflict now in the world in this piece of Aeschylus – and in Beckett, if it’s a good play, you find every, or I would say a lot of, social… understanding in this piece. So you can find a lot about Germany, but you can find a lot of everything. That’s a good piece.

Beckett never talked about his pieces with a direct message-but he said it could be two Jews waiting, going to a concentration camp or they could be two people in the French Resistance, feting in the Germans. But if you have a Hakenkreuz, fixing the symbol of the Gestapo on stage, the production will falter. You have to open your mind and leave it open- not fix it on something or some message. Avoid logic. If you start turning logical with it then the whole production collapses. You get nothing, nothing at all- nada.