Waiting for Godot in Vietnam

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It began, as these things tend to, with me dressed as an American GI, under a black umbrella in 42-degree heat and surrounded by a burnt-out battlefield in the Madagui jungle, talking to the first Mormon I’d ever met.

But maybe I should back up for some context. For as long as I can possibly remember, I wanted to be an actor. My earliest memory of this is being taken to see Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat in the West End. In one of the few times that I’ve got to spend any real time with my dad (I was one of four children so didn’t get much alone time with him) he decided to take me to see a show. I was completely enthralled by everything that happened onstage and knew that that was what I wanted to do. Not long after I also attempted to audition for an open casting for Oliver unfortunately as the audition it had been announced on Blue Peter the previous evening the queue was so long I never made it to the front.

I suppose I must have been quite a single-minded child. I imagine there are other things I said that I wanted to do, but from the early age I never seemed to do anything but move towards being an actor. I took part in multiple amateur dramatic shows and societies. I told everyone who would listen – from family to friends to teachers – that one day I would be an actor. After some challenging conversations with my mum, trying to persuade her to allow me to specialise in drama at both GCSE and A level, I was allowed to – but only with the caveat that I would have a “back up” plan.

After leaving six form I immediately auditioned for every single conservatoire drama school I could find. Dragooning family members into driving me the length and breadth of the country in order to attend auditions in places I’d never heard of and in ways that I didn’t fully understand yet. After being soundly rejected for every single conservatoire drama school I went to, I decided to get some experience. This was mainly off the back of one particular drama school who called me a ‘child’ in my audition and told me to “come back when you’re an adult”.

After a few years of Theatre in education, the rite of passage that many actors in the UK go through, I was successful in obtaining a place at a conservatoire drama school. It was both the best and possibly worst experience of my life. But that may be a discussion for another time.

After leaving drama school at the height of a recession and finding a difficult economy for an already difficult profession I decided to team up with a drama school friend to create our own work as so many actors do. We did some incredible work, work that I am still immensely proud of to this day. However, after five or six years I had realised that this wasn’t working for me. I needed some sort of stability in my life I needed a new direction. What that looked like, I had no idea. But what I had decided was that acting was no longer for me.

I want to impress here how big a decision this was. At this time in my life, acting was a fundamental core part of my identity. Something that only many years of counselling and therapy has disabused me of. So, you can imagine deciding to go against what I thought was such a fundamental part of who I was, was incredibly scary. For the first time in my life since I was five years old, I was adrift, I had no direction.

Being the well-rounded, stable, and mature person I was, I decided to move to Vietnam. Having no idea what I would even do when I arrived in the country, I packed my bags, sold everything I owned, and jumped on a plane. Accompanying me was a girlfriend, a very new girlfriend. Unsurprisingly to no one but myself, it was a bit of a shock to find myself in a completely different country with no real knowledge of the culture, language, or even an idea of what I would do next.

I told myself I was doing this not to “find myself” as so many other young impressionable travellers do. I was different, I had had some experience, I was here to decide what to do with the rest of my life. Like many immigrants from the West into this part of the world, I ended up teaching. A job I found immense reward in. It was a very different quality of life, such that I’d as yet never experienced. I didn’t earn millions, but due to the cost of living in Vietnam, the wage I earned allowed me to live with the sort of freedom I have never had in the UK.

As will come as no surprise to anyone reading this, that new relationship definitely did not end up working out. But again, maybe yet another topic for another day.

After eight or so months I found myself becoming restless. Teaching was great, it was fun, and I enjoyed it. However, I found that there was something missing, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was. I think that is how I found myself joining “expat” Facebook groups. From there I found a casting call for an Italian film in production in Vietnam. The film told the Story of Oriana Fallaci, the first female journalist to report from the front lines of a war amongst many other achievements.

I told myself this wasn’t “getting back into acting”; it was just a bit of fun. It was something to pass the time. It would be a good opportunity to meet new people, whilst at the time I’m pretty sure I knew I was deceiving myself. Little did I know how true that lie would become.

The casting call was familiar to me as I’d attended so many in small Soho casting rooms. But this time it took place in a beautiful airy space on the outskirts of Saigon. We were each asked to read ‘a side’, and it was quickly realised that I had some form of training. Subsequently I was cast in a named role, ironically to date probably my most successful audition ever. A week later I joined 40 other western men on a coach from central Saigon out to the Madagui jungle. That’s how I found myself standing in the middle of a simulated burnt-out battlefield dressed as an American GI chatting to Adam (name has been changed).

Most of the others I met on the film were what I thought I was: here for some fun, to meet new people, and to have an interesting experience to talk about over dinner parties after returning to the UK. Adam immediately surprised me in that he took his craft incredibly seriously. Having spent a lot of my life around people who did, I knew that this wasn’t his first rodeo. We very quickly saw each other for what we were and fell into a deep conversation about the nature of art and Theatre. Others attempting to join in the conversation were soon put off through a lack of shared experience.

It was an odd conversation, but one I think I’ll remember for a very long time. We were consistently interrupted by takes where half the battlefield would explode, and Adam would have to run through the battlefield screaming for a medic and giving instructions to other GIs. Adam had been spotted at the casting as someone with talent.

Over the week of filming, Adam and I spent a lot of time together. I think it was in that first conversation that Adam mentioned to me that he used to run an English language Theatre company in Saigon, the only one of its kind in Vietnam. Adam was also impressive in that he was not only fluent in Vietnamese but fluent to a point where he was indistinguishable from a native speaker. I also learned that Adam had a burgeoning acting career in Vietnam, talented western actors who can speak Vietnamese to that level being very hard to come by.

Adam’s regret was that his partner in the Theatre company had recently moved to another country and so the company had become defunct. He confided in me that his main love was Theatre, something of which there is very little of in Vietnam. I found myself excited by my conversations with Adam in a way that I hadn’t been in a long time.

Over our conversations I confided in Adam that I’d always thought of directing, that I’d always had a series of plays that I’d love to stage. But since I was definitely not an actor anymore, that hope was probably behind me. Adam to my surprise said, “well seeing as we’re not doing anything else with the Theatre company, why don’t you come and direct shows for us”.

Probably for the first time in my life, I’d found quite by accident a situation and an opportunity where there were no expectations. Where the cost of living would allow me to experiment, where I’d met a collaborator who was willing to give me the sort of creative freedom and trust that you very rarely see and which I had only experienced once before. I think at this point I was still convincing myself that it would be ‘a bit of fun’ – nothing too serious.

After returning to Saigon, we met frequently and ran some ideas for shows that we might do. Finally settling upon Blue/Orange by Joe Penhall. A three hander, that would be easy to stage but quite effective.

It was, as they say, a runaway success. We sold out almost every single night, and due to the production costs being very low, we actually made a profit – something almost unheard of in artistic circles in the UK. Rather than take the money and run, we decided to take a risk.

Samuel Beckett has always intrigued me. A writer who at once is political, opinionated, didactic, but also gives the impression that he is none of these things. Waiting for Godot has been voted the most significant English language play of the 20th century. It’s a truly absurdist play that can be viewed from multiple different angles, depending on the seating of the viewer.

This piece captured my imagination from an incredibly young age. It’s written like a symphony with themes, melodies, movements, and rests. As in all well-constructed music, certain themes and ‘hooks’ come back again and again. Beckett was extraordinarily specific with his stage directions, using ellipses, ‘pause’, ‘silence’, and ‘long silence’ to denote specific rhythm and metre. I endeavoured to stay as true to this vision as possible.

Over the many years of seeing this play and reading the piece I’ve tried to pin down what exactly it’s about: Is it a Jungian exploration of the archetypal personalities? Or rather a treatise on the Freudian Ego and Id? Or is it just two men waiting for a man called Godot?

“It is a game, everything is a game. […] Otherwise everything becomes an imitation, an imitation of reality […]. It should become clear and transparent, not dry. It is a game in order to survive.” – Samuel Beckett on directing Godot

I pitched the idea to Adam, who to be honest was not very enthusiastic. To give an idea of why, maybe I should give you an idea of the cultural scene in Vietnam. Adam’s idea for his Theatre company had always been to not only serve the westerners who lived in Vietnam, but he had the ultimate aim of enticing Vietnamese people to the stage, something we had had a lot of trouble doing. Vietnam does not have anything like a traditional western theatre culture. Yes, there are certain performative traditions, but nothing similar to what we see in the West.

There are approximately four Vietnamese theatrical or performative traditions. The closest to a western tradition is Chèo; the closest translation of this form would be satirical opera for the masses. Semi-Amateur troupes tour the countryside traditionally performing in village squares or the courtyards of public buildings. As with other types of satire, Chèo traditionally focuses on a critique of the existing social order, having more in common with Commedia dell’arte than it does with any traditional Victorian styles of Theatre that we see in the UK. Given the tight control the current government has on any public performances (more on this later), Chèo now is more likely to present morality-type performances than the historical satire it is well known for.

Vietnamese people just don’t see the point in going out for an evening to sit in neat rows in a grand building facing a stage and watch people tell a story in a naturalistic way. I think it’s something we take for granted in the west, that this is just something that is done. I’m under no illusions, I’m not the first person to suggest that maybe the western artistic world is parochial and has no real idea of cultural traditions outside of itself. There are evidently, and obviously, far better qualified people to talk to this than myself. I can only speak from my experience. I had many conversations with Vietnamese people, as did Adam, and the most common reaction we had to the suggestion of coming to the western style of theatre was bafflement.

However, after some persuasion on my part and assurances that at the very least this would be of interest to the western audience, we agreed to go ahead. The first hurdle we needed to cross was from the Beckett estate, notoriously touchy about any performance of Beckett’s works. Notably refusing permission for all female performances of Waiting for Godot, for reasons that honestly to me are still a mystery wrapped in misogyny.

Nevertheless, we applied to the estate with no real hope of permission, deciding that even if we were refused, there may be a way that the show would go on anyway; Vietnam not being that notable on the world theatrical stage. I applied leaning heavily on my intention to faithfully represent Beckett’s vision, fully incorporating his notes on rhythm and tone. We also, quite optimistically, asked for a reduction in the licencing fee for the piece, noting that this would be the Vietnamese premiere and that it would be exposing Beckett’s work to an entirely new audience. To our utter surprise and shock the estate got back to us granting us full permission and a nominal licencing fee.

Now we had received permission to go ahead (which I don’t think either of us were really expecting), we had to put on the show.

Finding actors is a difficult process at the best of times. Finding actors who had the technical ability to perform a work like this who also happened to be in Saigon and available I believed might be insurmountable. It’s better to think of Waiting for Godot as akin to a piece by Shakespeare, Fletcher, or Middleton. The original intention, and one which I intended to follow, is very much in the same tradition as verse. Many people talk about the famous ‘Pinter pause’ without realising that Pinter was invoking Beckett. Beckett was obsessed with rhythm and silence within his work even going so far as to meet with Stravinsky to question the composer about how he could notate the tempi of his plays and the length of his pauses.

This meant that the actors would need to have a certain level of technical capability to be able to deal with the challenges of the text. Furthermore, since these actors would be paid a minimal fee, have minimal rehearsal time, and would have to come from a very small pool, I was not optimistic.

We auditioned as many actors as we could find in Saigon at the time… around twelve. If I were a religious man, I would say that the gods intervened and provided me with four astonishing actors. I managed to find an incredibly talented cast, one of whom was a mere 17 years old. I would say a prodigy. In a big gamble, I decided to cast this 17-year-old as Lucky, a part that seasoned actors would quake to take on.

The auditions took place in the living room of my apartment as did the rehearsals. Saigon does not have rehearsal rooms nor even really performance venues. We were looking to perform the piece in an old warehouse that had been converted to a nightclub and bar. The owner, predisposed to theatre, had allowed us to perform some of our shows there before.

Next came the setting, on one hand the piece does not demand much from a set designer. On the other it is probably the most significant decision the director will make, as it will be the only thing an audience sees for the duration of the play. As I had indicated to the Beckett estate I did fully intend to be as faithful to the original absurdist intentions of the piece as possible. A black stage with a bare brick wall background and a projected moon served well enough. However, the tree posed more problems. I experimented with projected trees, cloth trees, trees of metal. But nothing ever really seemed quite right.

After weeks of trying multiple different ways to make this work, I finally came to the realisation that the only thing that would fit with my vision was an actual tree. Putting aside the difficulties of planting a tree on a stage, getting the tree in the first place was going to be a challenge. Whilst in some ways Vietnam can be a bit of a lawless land, in others behaving in unusual ways is the quickest way to draw attention from the authorities.

That is how I found myself hiring a three-wheeled van at 2:00 a.m. and travelling with Adam to the side of a motorway to dig up a dead tree. We had spent a good 10 days driving around the outskirts of the city looking for the perfectly aesthetically pleasing tree. This will easily be one of my fondest memories of my time in Vietnam, and the absurdity of this moment I feel sits very well was Beckett’s intentions.

We transported the tree to our performance area and after much difficulty secured it to the stage where we painted it pure white. Which might be a good segue into talking about the cultural differences in stage crews.

We had a week for our ‘get in’ – more than enough time for an incredibly simple staging involving the raised platform covered in black cloth with two large lengths of cloth stage right and stage left, and a white tree secured to the centre of the stage. Even the lighting would be called rudimentary, a general cold wash with a projected moon and two spotlights. However, three days in to the get in, I become increasingly frustrated that the five Vietnamese crew members responsible for setting the space seemed to disappear for hours on end during the day. If I asked a gel in a light to be changed this would take anywhere between one to three hours, even longer if I wanted the light to be changed entirely. After the third day, I sat down with a beer with Adam (who had a Coke as always adhering to his Mormon faith) and vented my frustrations.

Adam looked at me with a sense of astonishment.

“I mean that is a very long time. You have given them their lunch money every day though, right?”

“Lunch money? I didn’t realise we needed to provide them with lunch.”

“No that’s not what I’m saying. I mean ‘lunch money’.  You know what I mean, right?”

It turns out I’d missed a vital cultural norm. Even though the stage crew were being paid way above the average wage in Vietnam and by most reckonings more than any equivalent stage crew would ever be paid, I had inadvertently insulted them. It turns out that the beginning of every day, it is expected that the ‘boss’ provides the working men with “lunch money”. This can take the form of actual money or, more often than not, crates of beer or actual lunch – the form is not important. What is important is the gesture of a ‘boss’ recognising the hard work of the crew and even before that work is carried out rewarding that crew.

The next day I arrived bright and early at the warehouse with two crates of beer and slipped inside the crates the equivalent of a day’s wages. I beckoned the crew over with Adam in tow (my Vietnamese still being less than rudimentary).

“So sorry we haven’t had a chance to do this before, here’s your lunch money for today and a bit more to make up for the few days that we missed. Have a great day”.

I have never seen a stage crew move as quickly as they did on that day. When I asked for lights to be changed, it was done in a matter of minutes. The wings for the stage that we had been waiting for since day went up in a matter of hours. It just goes to show how a local guide and paying attention to cultural norms can be invaluable.

This isn’t to say that the rest of the technical setup went without a hitch. The owner of the warehouse would not allow us to have the air conditioning on during the day; given that it was such a large space, it was incredibly expensive to chill. This was at the height of Vietnamese summer with an average temperature of 40 degrees. I’m pretty sure I lost a third of my weight just in sweating. Of course, my Vietnamese crew were completely unaffected by the humidity.

Three days before opening, Adam and I had our regular morning production meeting where he announced that today was “the censor’s day”. I had seemingly forgotten that Vietnam is still a somewhat authoritarian state, and all cultural productions have to be cleared by the government. Luckily nothing so formal as the now defunct Lord Chamberlain’s men in the UK, however no less threatening to our production. The delegation would be sent from the local constabulary who would come and view the production for any anti-government or seditious messages.

The facts that these “censors” could not speak a word of English would not seem to matter in the slightest. Adam assured me he had the entire situation in hand, and it would go off without a hitch. We set a dress rehearsal for the day for the censors to see the entire production in all its glory. The delegation arrived around an hour late (in Vietnamese time that’s pretty early). Dressed in the signature beige uniform of the Vietnamese police, they took their seats at the front of the auditorium and beckoned us to begin.

Estragon began:

“Nothing to be done.”

Immediately I heard the sound of a beer can opening. Looking to our esteemed guests, I saw three crates of beer sitting at their feet, and the censors tucking into some food and talking loudly amongst themselves. The actors looked to me for guidance, and I encouraged them to continue.

After 20 minutes the censorship group stood, nodded to me, and left. A quick debrief ensued in which Adam ensured me that everything was fine and had gone according to plan. Apparently, this is how censorship is done. Adam very astutely provided the crates of beer, the lunch, and a little extra slipped inside. This was sufficient for our production to be signed off.

The production ran for 4 nights and was a resounding success. Unfortunately, we managed to tempt only a handful of locals to attend. Whilst we managed to successfully navigate the censorious government officials to receive a permit, I believe this is mainly thanks to the stripped down and amorphous nature of the play. The ability to see what you wish to see in it. It’s worth remembering that if Godot had contained any overtly challenging or subversive material, I do not believe the production would have ever seen an audience.

Once the run was completed, we decided to return the tree, now painted white, to the side of the motorway. It lasted all of 4 days before being removed, I assume, by the authorities. Apparently, an absurdist treatise on the nature of being is fine, but a tree on the side of the road that stands out from the crowd is just too much for the Vietnamese censors.

 

 

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