Patrick Robinson tells Roz Laws why Waiting For Godot is perfect for an all-black production.
IT is the play of which it was famously said that nothing happens...twice.
To give Irish critic Vivian Mercier his due, he added of Waiting For Godot that although nothing happens in both the first and second acts, it still “keeps audiences glued to their seats”.
That’s what Patrick Robinson hopes will happen with the latest version of the Samuel Beckett masterpiece. An all-black cast comes to the Old Rep later this month as part of Birmingham Rep’s off-site season.
Patrick is playing Estragon to Jeffery Kissoon’s Vladimir – two men waiting endlessly for the elusive Godot.
So, why put on Britain’s first all-black production?
“Well, why not?” counters Patrick, who lives near Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire.
“They’ve already had an all-female cast, so I don’t see why it can’t be done with black actors.
“It mirrors the story of the West Indies. Estragon and Vladimir are part of the Windrush generation, who came to Britain in the 1950s with high hopes.
“But it’s really just about the human condition. We are all in the process of waiting for something, and it’s all about how you wait.
“I am very good at waiting because I’m West Indian and we’ve had to wait for many things – emancipation, acknowledgement, opportunities.
“And actors have to learn to wait for parts. You have to be patient and have faith, that’s one of my mantras.”
There is only one, sparse set for Waiting For Godot, but Patrick insists: “If you have a good script, you can do it anywhere. You just need Beckett’s brilliant words.
“I hope the audience will be engaged, and that they will laugh. There’s a reverence towards Beckett and a feeling that you’re not supposed to laugh. It’s often seen as sombre, but it’s actually very funny. “You can’t help but find so much of it hilarious. What I would love is to come to Birmingham and get a predominantly black audience who howl with laughter.
“They don’t know who Samuel Beckett is or what this play is, they just know it’s called Waiting for Godot and it’s really funny. They are entertained and that’s the goal as far as I’m concerned.”
Patrick joins Waiting For Godot fresh from the award-winning West End production of War Horse. It doesn’t take much prompting for him to start laying into what he sees as the faults of Steven Spielberg’s recent film, which received six Oscar nominations.
“The film is nothing like the stage production,” he says, heatedly.
“My character, a German officer who looks after the horses, isn’t even in the film, which I’ve seen and I’m not impressed by.
“The bottom line is that they changed the story to make money. I don’t have anything positive to say about it.
“It’s schmaltz and I don’t care about any of the characters.
“Now there will be a whole generation of people who think War Horse is like the film, but people have to see the play.”
Patrick, 48, shot to fame as nurse Ash in the BBC1 drama Casualty. The fifth of seven children of a Jamaican bus driver living in East London, his cousin is footballer Ian Wright. He moved to Warwickshire to join the Royal Shakespeare Company – he became the first black actor to play Romeo in the company’s history – and stayed when he fell in love with usherette Janis.
They married on a beach in the Seychelles with Robson Green as best man, and had two children.
It is to be near them that Patrick still lives in the Midlands.
After leaving Casualty, he found fame in another long-running series when he joined The Bill as DC Jacob Banks.
He played him for nearly three years before the drama was axed in 2010.
“It was a real shame to see it crash as it did,” he laments. Suddenly there were 19 actors scrambling for work, and only three or four have made high-profile TV appearances since.
“They’d revamped it and I thought it was going really well, but ITV said no.
“They said they would put the money they saved into new dramas, but I haven’t seen any actors from The Bill in those series.
“It feels we are surplus to requirements.”
Patrick believes it is worse for him as a black actor trying to make it on TV in Britain.
He agrees with Birmingham actor David Harewood, who hit the headlines when he said he was forced to go to America to get a starring role, in the hit drama Homeland now on Channel 4.
Patrick says: “Ask any lay person to name five British black actors and they wouldn’t be able to.
“They might come up with Adrian Lester in Hustle and Idris Elba in Luther.
“But Idris had to go to America to make it in The Wire before they asked him back here.
“I don’t count Lenny Henry, either, because he’s a comedian.
“He’s a great guy but I don’t see him as a great actor. I don’t want to damn any brother, but I wasn’t happy when they gave him a Best Newcomer award for playing Othello.
“There are some white actors who hardly ever seem to be out of work.
“Look at the guys from Life On Mars and Mad Dogs, like Philip Glenister, Marc Warren and John Simm – they never stop.
“But we just don’t get those chances.
“We haven’t had one black British face who’s won an acting BAFTA award. Not one that I can think of. It’s ridiculous.
“It’s almost like you have to go over to America to get a decent gig. There is greater respect, and more substantial work, for black actors there. If Waiting For Godot hadn’t come up, I would be in America now, trying to find work.”
* Waiting For Godot comes to Birmingham’s Old Rep from March 13-17. For tickets ring 0121 236 4455 or go to www.birmingham-rep.co.uk