Brian Cox and Bill Patterson on Waiting for Godot

ONE lives in New York and the other in London, but stars of stage and screen Brian Cox and Bill Paterson are returning to where it all began for the Royal Lyceum’s Waiting For Godot, they tell Susan Mansfield
Brian Cox and Bill Paterson in Waiting for GodotBrian Cox and Bill Paterson in Waiting for Godot
Brian Cox and Bill Paterson in Waiting for Godot

BRIAN Cox and Bill Paterson emerge from the Lyceum’s rehearsal room expressing a desire for “a glass of red wine, and a pay-rise”. After a full day at the Beckett coalface, the two veteran actors look tired, but are in genial humour.

Bringing both back to the Scottish stage to star in Waiting for Godot, the opening production of the Lyceum’s 50th anniversary season, is something of a coup. Both live outside Scotland – Cox in New York, Paterson in London – and enjoy busy careers mixing theatre, television and film. They have never appeared on stage together (they “passed like ships in the night” on the set of the film, Complicity), and neither has done Beckett before.

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When I ask how it’s going, they’re cautious. “We’re in what’s called the vulnerable period,” says Cox, Vladimir to Paterson’s Estragon. “It’s not quite there, but it’s thereabouts.” They say they’re discovering that the key to Beckett is sticking precisely to the text and playing it as straight as possible. Paterson says: “Any script is a piece of music, like a score, but it is absolutely the case here, you’ve got a string quartet (John Bett and Benny Young join them as Pozzo and Lucky), you don’t improvise or play bum notes.”

“If you get it wrong, you feel it,” Cox adds. “It’s really about listening, creating in the moment, having the spontaneity of that moment within incredibly tight text.”

Although Godot has been played by actors of all ages – the first British cast, directed by Peter Hall, were in their twenties – recently, it has become a vehicle for actors of a certain venerability. Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart played it, memorably, in 2009, since reprising the roles on Broadway. Cox and Paterson, both in their late 60s, are about the age Beckett said his characters were. “It is a play of ageing,” says Cox. “Even though Beckett was in his forties when he wrote it, it couldn’t be more accurate on the nature of overactive bladder and bad feet. The irony is, Bill has quite good feet (Estragon is notoriously foot-obsessed). I have s***ty feet, I’ve got athritis in my feet.”

“I damaged my leg in an accident a few weeks ago, and I realised then with a vengeance how much Godot has to do with legs and feet,” reflects Paterson. “You do assume these are men that have been round the block. I think it’s more interesting if you sense that, if these guys look like they have been on that road for a lot of time, and they’re not wearing any make-up to make them look like that.”

They have decided, they say, not to waste time worrying about what the Beckett classic is “about”. “Actually it doesn’t really help,” says Cox, “the play has a mystery about it and you play the mystery.” “Everyone will put their own interpretation on it,” adds Paterson. “It’s wide open to that, I think that’s why it’s a classic. You don’t need to find a backstory. I don’t need to spend my time thinking Gogo (Estragon) was a failed bank manager. Although I do tend to think he might be a failed quantity surveyor, like me, because there’s a lot of me in there.” This makes Cox holler with laughter. Paterson continues: “Beckett has written something quite profound, because when you get to a certain age, you start to think, well, you are running out of time, and you’re reliving parts of your youth. That’s particularly strong because we’re in Edinburgh doing it.”

For Cox that means memories of being in the first Lyceum company, formed by actor-director Tom Fleming, exactly 50 years ago, for Paterson, being on the Fringe in Billy Connolly’s smash-hit The Great Northern Welly Boot Show in the early 1970s, and moving on to be a founding member of John McGrath’s 7:84, and to tour in The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil.

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He went on to a wide-ranging career on stage and television, including The Singing Detective, Smiley’s People and more recently, Sea of Souls, and films such as The Killing Fields, Comfort and Joy, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Cox left the Lyceum to work at Birmingham Rep, and later the RSC and National Theatre before his movie breakthrough in the first Hannibal Lecktor film, Manhunter. Films since have included Troy, X-Men 2 and Braveheart, and he was most recently seen on the small screen in retro-spy series The Game. Both actors continue to work hard in both leading and supporting roles: Cox has just finished a horror film, The Autopsy of Jane Doe, and Paterson has been filming Churchill’s Secret, a drama about the politician’s closing years, for ITV.

Cox says he has vivid memories of his first year at the Lyceum as a “wet behind the ears” new graduate from LAMDA. He laughs: “The idea that I might have been playing Waiting for Godot… I would have thought, well, I might play that when I’m 25, or 28.” He was an understudy in Fleming’s opening production, a Scots version of Goldoni’s A Servant of Two Masters in a company which included Russell Hunter, Una McLean, Eileen McCallum and Callum Milne. When Tom Conti left the production unexpectedly, he was called upon to go on stage as Sylvio: “But I couldn’t get into his costume because he was so skinny. I couldn’t even get my arm in the sleeve!” Paterson remembers being in the audience for that first Lyceum production. “I was working as an apprentice quantity surveyor, and I would wangle jobs that took me to Edinburgh so I could go to the theatre.” He packed in surveying for the stage the following year.

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Cox, meanwhile, worked at the Lyceum throughout the 1965/66 season, including appearing as a white witch and dalek in David Kane’s Rumpelstiltskin at Christmas. “On New Year’s Day 1966, I was so drunk that I fell on the floor of the dressing room in full make-up as a white witch, and I couldn’t get up. So they left me there and were one witch short. When it came to the dalek, all they did was bring my costume in and put it on stage. I was supposed to turn at one point and somebody ran on and turned it!”

In The Birdies, the final production of the season, which also played for the 1966 Festival, Scottish comedy greats Duncan Macrae and Fulton Mackay joined the cast. “It was a pretty ropey old show, but to see these two play scenes together was electric,” says Cox.

He speaks with huge admiration both of Macrae, who died the following year (“I just think I was so lucky to have met that man,”), and Mackay, who became his mentor. “People remember Fulton for Porridge, they say he was brilliant in that, but he was brilliant in so many things. He was a humdinger of an actor, he could do anything.”

He paid tribute to a particular strand of Scottish acting, which Fleming’s company nurtured, which could move from comedy to classical roles with complete fluency. Paterson says: “Brian and I got the tailend of that generation. Just to make a living, you had to be adaptable, so they could do Moliere and Shakespeare and Ibsen and then do panto. That’s where you got the rise of people like Ricky Fulton, Stanley Baxter, and – although everyone forgets he was Scottish – Alastair Sim.”

They are dedicating their production of Waiting for Godot to another great Scot, Kenny Ireland, whom they describe as “the total unsung hero of Scottish theatre”. The former artistic director of the Lyceum, and long-time friend of both actors, died of cancer last July. He was instrumental in Cox’s return to the Scottish stage to star in Ibsen’s The Master Builder at the Lyceum in 1993 (he would return again in 2004 for the title role in John Byrne’s first Chekhov adaptation, Uncle Varick). Cox says: “I had to get away and improve myself, as Fulton used to say, follow my mercenary calling and draw my wages, but I always had this thing pulling me back. It goes back to people like Macrae. I love being back.”

Paterson says that, were it not for Ireland, whom he first met when they were both 13, he might never have left quantity surveying. “He had been a trainee manager at Coates, the thread company, in Paisley, but packed it in to go to drama college. He said: ‘There is a course here that’s made for you, Billy, you will do it’. He got the forms and sat with me through my audition. Without that, I would have finished my career as a quantity surveyor, I would be a retired quantity surveyor now.”

• Waiting for Godot is at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, 18 September- 10 October,