April 2, 2015
Appearing in concurrent productions of Endgame in Sydney and Melbourne, former co-stars Hugo Weaving and Luke Mullins talk about their forthcoming reunion in Waiting for Godot in London
What is the collective noun for Samuel Beckett plays? Australia certainly needs to find one, with five productions playing across the country in the first half of 2015 alone, following the Helpmann award-winning success of Andrew Upton’s Waiting for Godot.
Two of Godot’s co-stars are currently appearing in separate productions of Endgame: Hugo Weaving as Hamm for Sydney Theatre Company and Luke Mullins as Clov for Melbourne Theatre Company. The pair met to talk about the playwright’s enduring appeal and their forthcoming reunion in Godot for the Barbican’s International Beckett Season.
How do you look back at Sydney’s Waiting for Godot a year on?
Hugo Weaving: Godot was probably the hardest thing I’ve had to do in my life. With Beckett, the psychological reality isn’t necessarily there in the rehearsal room. So it’s very hard for you as an actor to guess what’s going to be there for the audience.
Luke Mullins: Yes. It wasn’t really until we got in front of them that we knew what it was. I think until you have an audience you can’t feel what Beckett’s doing. Godot isn’t made according to a normal narrative or plot. It’s driven by experience.
HW: And the same is true of Endgame, if not more so, because of the physical restrictions, I suspect. Certainly from my point of view playing Hamm; maybe not from Luke’s as Clov in Melbourne – I can’t stand and he can’t sit! And Hamm is blind too. The hardest thing is the glasses. The ones I wear aren’t sunglasses – they’ve been painted out. That has a massive effect on my brain and the way I read information.
If it’s such hard work, why sign up for more Beckett?
LM: Because so many of his pieces are just these exquisitely written, perfect objects. It’s incredibly satisfying to have such a clear set of instructions to follow that if you do follow them – not so much obey, but really follow – it’s creating something you couldn’t otherwise do as an actor.
HW: I totally agree. He’s incredibly restrictive in one way, in terms of form. The music and structure of the piece is very clear. If you veer from that to any great extent, you’re in big trouble. But when you do find your own lives within that form, then it can be a very joyful experience. Beckett has the most amazing sense of humour. All his writing is infused with it. I remember the first Godot preview was such a relief – hearing the audience laugh.
LM: I remember it too. It was the shock: “My god, it works!” It was thrilling.
LM: The main task for Sam [Strong, director at Melbourne Theatre Company] is keeping everyone on track with what the play is and creating a room where, collaboratively, we can work out the detail and the music. Humour in theatre often feels like jazz where you can riff on stuff. Sam’s approach to Beckett is like a piece of classical music where we strictly follow the score. Listen to two versions of the same classical piece and they can be incredibly different in nuance. That’s been Sam’s guiding approach.
HW: There is a genius in Beckett that Andrew [Upton, at Sydney] really appreciates as a writer himself. We’ve had fun in rehearsal talking about particular lines: how one line can be inherently amusing in the way it sits on the page or the way it comes out of your mouth. And that’s something we all share. There’s absolutely nothing dictatorial about Andrew. He just watches and listens and observes until a keen sense comes through of how the pauses should play.
Do you ever feel the need to lighten things up?
HW: I don’t find Beckett heavy. I find him very, very difficult – and he’s serious. At the same time, there’s so much vaudeville. That, and classical French theatre, were his two great influences. You can’t play with Beckett without a series of groupings: in Godot, two people and two people. In Endgame, two people and then the bins. There’s great enjoyment in finding those routines. Really, we’ve been laughing a lot.
I don’t think if you revere Beckett and put his plays on a pedestal, they work. You can’t do productions like that. They are deadly, deadly boring and Beckett would have hated them.
LM: I think it’s very true what Hugo says. There’s so much written academically about Beckett but in the end, he stopped writing novels and started writing theatre for a reason. To those who say, “Will I understand it? What does it mean? I don’t get it” – I think it’s kind of the wrong question to be asking. From watching and working on these plays, the question for me is: what is happening between us on stage? And for the audience: what is happening to me? Only then do the plays have an effect.
HW: We don’t expect a poet to clarify things for a reader. The job of a poet is to suggest certain things. So I don’t think meaning should come into it.
“Nothing is funnier than unhappiness” – was Beckett right?
LM: You can take that line in Endgame as a reminder from Beckett that his plays do have humour, or are meant to have humour. It’s not about rolling in self-pity. So I think it’s a wonderful instruction as to how to approach his work.
HW: His characters are all down on their luck. Real oddballs. Hypochondriacs. And they don’t believe in much at all. But they’re pretty resilient and kind of funny, I think. Funny, because they keep pushing on in the face of unbelievable misery and all sorts of physical ailments. Problems with the bladder, problems with smelly feet. All quite comedic unless you’re the person who has them.
Beckett writes about real people in shitty shitty situations who keep going. And there’s something human about that. They alleviate their boredom and routine with funny little things to entertain themselves. We all tend to do that in our lives.
How does it feel to be remounting Godot in London later this year?
HW: Terrifying and exhausting.
LM: It already hurts to think about it.
HW: We’ve got something like four or five days of rehearsals here in Sydney before we go to London. The remount is a re-trusting in each other. Trust that the intervening year-and-a-half has added something rather than diminished what we’ve done before. It’s pretty scary. It’s a huge play and very easy to get lost in it. We’ll really need to be on our mettle.
What is the main draw for London audiences: you or Beckett?
HW: I would hope Beckett is the draw. He certainly is for me. I think there is an increased interest in Beckett. He was of his time and he’s been revered (and misunderstood) in all sorts of wrong ways since. Perhaps we’re starting to be excited by him in the right way now – being able to read and enjoy his pieces without putting them on a pedestal.
How would you persuade people turned off by Samuel Beckett – or indifferent – to see these plays?
HW: If they’re indifferent, don’t come!
LM: I would say to anyone interested in the theatre, or who’s ever even thought about going to the theatre, that you must want to see a Beckett. You must! You can’t miss that experience. Also, that there is no appropriate response. Whatever is happening to you, is happening. As long as something is, then it’s working.
Melbourne Theatre Company’s Endgame is at Southbank theatre until 25 April. Sydney Theatre Company’s Endgame is at Rosalind Packer theatre until 9 May. Waiting for Godot is at Barbican, London from 4-13 June as part of the International Beckett Season 2015