Sydney Morning Herald
November 3, 2013
Samuel Beckett’s existential comedy is just the latest of the classics to enthral its versatile star.
It’s 10am and Hugo Weaving is stretched out on a sofa at the end of the Sydney Theatre Company Wharf, overlooking a glittering Walsh Bay, underlining passages of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. He looks every inch the diligent, thoughtful actor he’s reputed to be.
“I’m finding the script absolutely thrilling to read,” Weaving says, packing his script into a brown leather satchel. “It’s intellectually stimulating and physically stimulating and it is wildly, fantastically funny. I’ve always wanted to do this play.”
I love the immediacy of theatre but I also love the intimacy of film. I want to keep working in both.
Weaving is dressed in his work clothes: Blundstones and blue jeans. A blue T-shirt sets off his pale blue eyes. He speaks quietly and intensely, but his eyes flash when he gets passionate – which is often.
“I love the immediacy of theatre but I also love the intimacy of film. So I really want to keep working in both. I hope to do at least one play a year.”
The Sydney Theatre Company seems more than happy to accommodate Weaving’s ambitions. Last year, he played the roguish Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses. In 2011, he enthralled audiences in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, opposite Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh, in a production that toured to New York and Washington. Next year, he stars in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
Beckett’s existential comedy Waiting for Godot sees Weaving teaming up with Roxburgh once again. Working closely together, they hope to unearth Beckett’s humour as well as his poetry.
“We’ve worked out where all the clowning opportunities are. But it’s important that it doesn’t get too funny,” Weaving says. “These two men are desperate as well. The only thing we know about them is that they have abandoned the world – or the world has abandoned them. They seem to exist, just the two of them, in this desolate place with one dead tree in it. And they’re waiting for Godot – whoever he is.”
Outside of rehearsals, Weaving’s world is a much more lushly forested one. He has a property in the northern Hunter region, near Dungog.
“I’ve put in a whole band of lemon-scented gums and they’re going well,” he says. He’s also learning to keep bees. “An Italian strain of bee,” he says. “My partner Katrina organised it all and we picked them up and drove them up with all the bees buzzing around in the back. They are making a home and the queen is laying and it sounds like it’s going pretty well.”
It’s clearly the kind of buzz Weaving prefers, though his public profile remains as strong as ever and is likely to grow with the release of the upcoming instalments of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy.
“I don’t even know if I’m in the second one yet,” Weaving says. “Cate and I went over and did a few scenes for the first one and while we were there they said, ‘oh, actually, we think we might make it two films’, so we stayed and did some more. But those scenes might end up in the third film, which would make sense. I did enjoy making those films, though. I don’t normally go to film premieres but heading over to Wellington and catching up with the other actors feels like a big party.”
At present, however, theatre is taking precedence over film work. After Waiting for Godot, Weaving will be preparing to play Macbeth. The play is “such a fiend”, he says. “When I think of Macbeth, I think of claustrophobia and nightmares.”
Macbeth will be performed in the auditorium of the Sydney Theatre at Walsh Bay. The audience, limited to around 300 a show, will sit on the stage.
“It’s a difficult enough piece already without whacking the audience on stage, but there’s something fantastic and exciting about that,” Weaving says. “Macbeth’s world is a world turned upside down, so that might work very well.”
Does the role hold any supernatural terrors for him? Many actors won’t even speak the name of “the Scottish play” out loud.
“No, not really,” Weaving smiles. “I have been in it before and a few things happened but I don’t think anyone actually died.”
Weaving has also had a starring role away from theatre and film. Artist Del Kathryn Barton’s portrait of Weaving, in which he appears to be cuddling some kind of wildcat, won this year’s Archibald Prize. The cat, Barton explained at the time, represented one of the facets of Weaving’s personality.
“It was an African cat,” Weaving adds, presumably a reference to the fact he was born in Nigeria.
An art collector, Weaving says he enjoyed the process of being painted enormously.
“I’d always followed Del’s work but never met her until I sat for her,” he says. “We had lunch and we talked and I perved around her studio – I love artists’ studios – and it was a really nice vibe. I was really thrilled for her when she won [the Archibald]. It’s exciting to see someone else’s creative process.”
For the time being, however, Weaving is immersed in his own. Waiting for Godot has had an unusual start. For the first two weeks of rehearsals, the cast was waiting for its director, Tamas Ascher (who also directed Uncle Vanya), to arrive from Europe. When a middle-ear infection ruled him out of the production entirely, Andrew Upton, the STC’s artistic director, stepped in.
“We were all joking that we were ‘waiting for Tamas’,” says Weaving. “It’s very sad Tamas couldn’t come, but it’s also ridiculous – very Beckettian.
“I’m thrilled that Andrew was able to jump in and take over because he has a great brain and a level head and he and Rox and I get on very well. We’re laughing a lot and we’re discovering the play together.”
Weaving says Godot strikes a deep chord for any actor because waiting is very much part of any performer’s life.
“You pass the time by talking and playing games and entertaining yourself. Everything is about spending the time in the most entertaining way possible – which is what the theatre is. This idea of coming back to the same place to wait is what actors do all the time. We come back and repeat the same things night after night.”
Hugo Weaving, 53, and Richard Roxburgh, 51, have been on parallel, occasionally intersecting tracks for much of their careers. Both were NIDA trained, with Weaving graduating in 1981 and Roxburgh five years later. Weaving’s break-out role was in a TV series (Bodyline), as was Roxburgh’s (Blue Murder). They both developed international profiles in film at roughly the same time, with Weaving playing the implacable Agent Smith in the Matrix series while Roxburgh played high-profile support roles in Mission Impossible II and Moulin Rouge!
“Rox directed me in a play called That Eye The Sky many years ago [in 1994, to be exact], but Godot is only the second play we’ve done together,” says Weaving. The first was the Sydney Theatre Company’s Uncle Vanya, which proved a huge critical success. “We seem able to work very easily together,” says Weaving. “We don’t talk a lot about the process. I enjoy him, he’s got a good brain and great instincts and I’ve always admired what he does.”
In Waiting for Godot, Weaving is Vladimir, Roxburgh is Estragon. “Vladimir is slightly airier, more philosophical, more searching and talkative,” Weaving says. “Estragon tends to be more physical, desirous of sleep and rest, wanting food. He’s closer to the earth. Vladimir is of the air and Estragon of the ground.”