Wall Street Journal
June 3, 2015
“I have a hankering for peace and quiet, tree-planting, growing vegetables, being with nature,” Mr. Weaving says. “That’s where I’m at as Hugo.”
Before that, however, the Australian actor, whose big-screen credits include “The Matrix,” “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” trilogies, will be in London playing Vladimir in the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Samuel Beckett’s classic “Waiting for Godot.”
A Beckettian odyssey—Mr. Weaving recently concluded a run of the playwright’s equally absurdist “Endgame”—can weary an actor. “Waiting for Godot,” which runs June 4 to 13 at the Barbican Theatre and reunites the cast of the company’s acclaimed 2013 production, is a real test, he says.
“Beckett has stripped everything out of ‘Godot,’ ” Mr. Weaving says. “It is almost an actor’s nightmare of being stuck on stage and not knowing what to say or even asking, What play am I doing? It is sort of what Godot is, I reckon. There is nothing to say, and the two main characters [have] got to keep saying things or otherwise they would go absolutely mad.”
There is no point in attempting to dramatically reinterpret the play, Mr. Weaving says, as any affectations or devices would simply collapse under the play’s demands for simplicity. “You need to be very delicate with Beckett. His characters are very human, and that’s what makes them so wonderful and so funny and robust in a way,” he says. “You cannot stick anything there.”
Mr. Weaving sat down with the Journal to talk about interpreting “Godot,” the play’s humor, and his recently dark theatrical path, which included a stage production of “Macbeth.” Edited excerpts:
What is your take on “Godot”?
The understanding of the play comes from watching it and being in it, really. I don’t think you can easily sum it up. It’s something that whenever Beckett was asked about, he said it is all in the words, and it is all in the play. So I think the understanding of it is in the viewing and experiencing of both doing it and watching it. Beckett wrote it after the Second World War, and he’d been on the run, hiding in the south of France, having left Paris and been part of a resistance cell and the Irish Red Cross in Normandy. He’d seen a lot of hardship. The Second World War decimated Europe and changed the world. The play expresses something that he realized after the war—that he couldn’t write in the same way. He could not be a knowing writer anymore, and he had to express a lot of his doubt—his inabilities. So I think that the play deals with not knowing, and weakness and failure—and that’s the thing I love about the play.
How risky is it to try and overly define the play?
He is one of the first writers to deal with all those human frailties that many other writers before him had tried to cover up with heroic characters. The beauty of its characters, and the beauty of the play itself, is because of his realization that that is what he needed to write about. It’s possibly a post-apocalyptic world—we don’t know really—and these people are waiting, there is a routine that they go through, and they are spending their time in the best way, trying to avoid the hideous silence that surrounds them. It is kind of a metaphor for life, I suppose, but, really, to try and sum it up is not a good idea.
Is it important to know who Godot is?
He is a man we never see. Beckett absolutely refused to say who that was. There are obvious religious metaphors, but it would be entirely wrong to suggest that Godot was God. That is just completely wrong. He is just a man they are waiting for, or a person they are waiting for, [or] he is not one person. There are all sorts of theories.
Ian McKellen has said that it isn’t up to actors to tell audiences what to think. Is that the best approach?
Beckett is a great poet, and I don’t think it was his job to clarify things to people. It was his job to suggest things rather as a poet does through language. And similarly as actors, it’s our job to try to in some way find a world that feels appropriate for us, and our existence within that world and portray that, and allow the audience to imagine something for themselves.
Your recent plays all have an element of darkness and speak to universal human questions. Does that reflect your current stage of life?
I haven’t chosen them because of that, no. I was interested some years ago when I thought of doing some more theater with the [Sydney Theatre Company]. There had been a couple of plays I’d done, which were good plays. I had a hankering that if I was going to do a play, to do something that was a great work of art, that I couldn’t ever quite fathom or get to the bottom of. So the great thing about working with Shakespeare, Chekhov or Beckett is that you know it is always going to be slightly elusive, and the journey of it each night is going to be something which in some way mirrors life.
How does this production of “Godot” treat the balance between humor and darkness?
It is a delicate thing. You need to play the character to fit the situation, and then that’s what will make it funny. If you play for laughs, then it becomes obvious that’s what you are doing and then it’s less funny. I try to stick with what Vladimir is saying and thinking and let whatever happens, happen. If people think that is funny, great. There are times when Vladimir and Estragon [played by Richard Roxburgh] enjoy themselves despite the situation. It is a pretty fractious relationship—they are more clowning with each other, but I would not describe them as clowns.
Is there any self-reflection or catharsis coming to you from these roles?
I am at a watershed in my life. [My partner] Katrina and I are re-evaluating who we are, what family means, and what we want to do. I’m at a point of gradual change. Also, as an actor I’m increasingly finding it harder to say “yes” to film projects, because there are certain films that I really love as art forms, but there are a lot of films that I have no time for and I’m not interested in. The majority of films made for the industry are entertainments, and a lot of them are pretty poor at that. So the films that I love are pretty few and far between.
These are weighty roles you have taken on. Do you need time to rejuvenate?
I need to take a break from theater, probably because of the roles I’ve been doing, which I’ve absolutely loved. Theater is really quite exhausting. After we finish in London, I’m planning to take a bit of a break from theater. These plays give you a big workout every night. It is a complete holistic workout, so they do trash you a bit in a way. If I end up planting more trees up on the property, then that is fine by me.
Write to James Glynn at email@example.com