Jeffery Kissoon [image Richard Hubert Smith
Jeffery Kissoon is renowned as a veteran of British theatre and screen; 40 years into his career he is now walking the boards as Vladimir in Samuel Beckett’s notorious Waiting for Godot. Speaking to the man himself about the play and performing in an all black production, the interview delves into issues of etymology, theology, existentialism, politics and every feature of the human condition and society, rather like the play itself.
How would you describe Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot?
The simplified plot is that two men meet up near the end of the day by a tree and they wait for this unseen, unknown figure called Godot, and the time is spent watching them fill the silence for the length of time that we’re in the theatre space. It’s about two people waiting, and how they entertain and occupy their time. They talk a lot, they laugh, eat, and they speak in crazy and absurd kind of way sometimes, but certainly the audience really enjoys the absurdity of these two old men.
They contemplate their existence and their mortality; they often mention the fact that they could commit suicide. But it’s one endless day after day of waiting, waiting, waiting for Godot to come to save them from this drudgery of living. (Laughs) Sounds rather depressing doesn’t it?! From the opening to the end of the evening any subject matter concerning our existence can be discussed in the course of that play.
How do you personally interpret the figure of ‘Godot’?
I suppose every single one of us is looking for answers to our existence and the image of what will come to enlighten us is our ‘Godot’. Godot for me is the bringer of information. That’s because we’re doing it post Windrush and the guys in it are that kind of age and knowing the history of those people who are dislodged from their homeland where they had total knowledge of themselves, then taken away over strange waters to places where they have every iota of identity taken away from them. We’re talking about the descendents of slaves, and I don’t just think, I know that the slave’s purpose on the planet is to bring the truth back to the land because he is the only one who is looking for himself. Looking for this ‘X’ as Malcolm would call it. The saviour is the one who brings the knowledge to the people who are descendants of slaves, and they will have the knowledge to bring enlightenment to the rest of the world.
Waiting for Godot [image Matthew Hargraves
Beckett was an Irish writer; do you think his intention was to connect to the Diaspora?
Well, the play was originally written in French, Beckett was part of a huge intellectual movement in France, and he was hugely involved in the resistance during the war. He was also heavily influenced by his Irish origins, which is why the characters in this play are all wearing bowler hats; he arrived back in Ireland wearing a black beret! But it all marries in together. What’s interesting is the way the accents we have throughout the whole of the Caribbean, are heavily influenced by British and European accents. So for an example when an Irishman says, “ting” or “I tell ya” that’s Irish, but that’s easily something that a black person from the Caribbean would say. Everywhere the master takes over and we try to emulate the master still.
Why do you think it’s significant to have an all black cast doing this play?
It happens to be an all black cast for no other reason that we chose to do it that way.
If we had it set amongst Scandinavians, all the things that pertain to them, the history and the culture would automatically come through. It takes on the identity of those who do it. The nice thing about working with a black cast is there is a free flow of understanding and shared experience; we’re freer to play with each other. We have a white director, Ian Brown who was able and strong enough to allow us to bring ourselves out, so he was learning at the same time. The issue of waiting for the one to bring enlightenment; that’s the black condition throughout the whole world in my opinion.
Many interpretations of Beckett’s play have been based upon personal religion. Are you religious at all?
No, no, I used to be. I spent nine years in Islam, studying all those Judaic Christian and Islamic, I looked at them all in depth, and discovered they all came from elsewhere, it’s all plagiarised, it all goes back from ancient Tamera and ancient Egypt. ‘Africa’ is an Arabic naming of the continent ‘Afrikia’ and it means ‘to divide and separate’. So in the study of religion, all the other things have to be questioned, and you realise that all the names that black people are called they were called by someone else. You can not be a human being erect and tall, man or woman, walking the earth when someone else is naming you. If anybody had a faith they would interpret it to make it mean what they want it to mean. I don’t think this is an existence with no answers, I think the answers have been there but they’ve been reinterpreted, obscured and buried in such a way that we find it too difficult to go into that research, we think it’s too much, when in actual fact it isn’t. It’s essential if you want to understand the destiny of our souls.
You’re performing in Julius Caesar this summer. Is classical theatre your main passion?
I enjoy the classics immensely, especially Shakespeare. The first thing I did in theatre at school was called ‘No Great Shakes’ about the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare. That was when I was 15 in a wonderful little theatre in White City, it was called Christopher Wren then, it’s called the Phoenix now, and that was my first experience of Shakespeare.
“Each and every one of us is very important to the world, so when you take your life into your own hands and give it meaning there’s a reason for your existence”.
That was the beginning and that’s what still carries me in theatre up until this day; the enjoyment that I had for theatre then, I still have, I feel it every time. And that’s why I’m doing it, because I enjoy it, not for no glory, just because I enjoy it. I direct as well, that’s all part of me, it gives me and my life meaning. I came out of the 70s as an actor, so as a black actor walking out onto the stage you were making a political statement, especially if you were doing Shakespeare. At that time it was considered that black actors could not do Shakespeare and were hampered by accent.
Was accent ever an issue for you?
I came here at the age of ten with my Caribbean accent and it vanished quite quickly, you had to adjust, except for when I went home. The problem was that my father considered that we spoke better English than the English, than the London cockney boys, so he didn’t allow me to speak London English. So my father was my first teacher, the first one who got me to understand phrasing.
How does leaving Trinidad at the age of ten affect your work as an actor?
I think it informs everything I do, I think it informs my whole existence. You have this sea passage to this place that people consider the motherland. So there’s this crossing which has made two different lives, these two cultures which are a part of me.
Vladimir coming out of me will be all the things that went towards making me, I don’t sit down and dissect it, every time I walk onto a stage, how I walk, speak, move, is all present. You may think you’re acting, but that’s not what acting is, acting is stopping acting. Acting is cleaning the dirty window that’s in front of you so you can reveal yourself within the context of what you’re doing. That’s what makes you unique and special.
Waiting for Godot [image Matthew Hargraves
You’ve been acting for forty years....
Sorry! You’ve been acting for... quite a while! Have you seen many changes in that time?
(Laughs) Yes, I’ve been acting quite a while and I suppose I’m becoming one of the veterans if I’m not already. But there were people before me, my friend Oscar James is still there, my friend Rudolph Walker is still there, Mona Hammond who’s been off acting in the Caribbean, I’ve still got such respect for them all. My old friend Norman Beaton, he is to be respected and know that his heart was in the most perfect place, and he had meaning in everything he did. The biggest thing for me in that theatre space is not to sell myself short, and so you have to work hard. As a black man walking on the stage I saw the black kid at the back of the theatre watching what I do, there’s something to be handed down. So much has been done, but we’ve got so much still to achieve. We have to say what we really want to say.
What would you like to continue to achieve in your career?
I would like to continue with what I’m doing, continue acting, doing more directing, more filming. Mainly I would like to do work which has real meaning to myself and therefore the world outside, I see myself as being very important to the world. What I mean is, each and every one of us is very important to the world, so when you take your life into your own hands and give it meaning there’s a reason for your existence. Otherwise you’re just waiting for Godot.
Info: West Yorkshire House and Talawa’s Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett is on tour [West Yorkshire Playhouse, The Albany, Birmingham Rep, Theatre Royal Winchester, and New Wolsey] until April 7, 2012.