June 6, 2015
Reviewing the English-language premiere of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot at the Royal Court in 1955, the critic Kenneth Tynan wrote that Godot represented a fundamental redefinition of the dramatic form: “A play, it asserts and proves, is basically a means of spending two hours in the dark without being bored.”
In the 60 years since that first production, the enquiries into Godot’s “meaning” have been unceasing, with interpretations philosophical, psychoanalytical and theological accumulating around the text like layers of varnish on an old master painting.
Beckett himself detested the attempts to “understand” his play: “Why people have to complicate a thing so simple I can’t make out,” he remarked. But for his own production of Godot at the Schiller theatre in 1975, he divulged a modest sliver of interpretation: “It is a game, everything is a game.”
Andrew Upton’s production for the Sydney Theatre Company, part of the Barbican’s International Beckett Festival, draws on the drama’s ludic qualities to revelatory effect. In a programme note, Upton explains that the Hungarian director Tamas Ascher was originally intended to direct the 2014 Sydney production. When he was unable to do so, Upton took over, creating his own interpretation within the set conceived by Asher and the designer Zsolt Khell.
This is a monumental, monochrome, vaguely post-apocalyptic wasteland, brilliantly lit by Nick Schlieper in hard-edged tones of metallic silver and grey. Before the towering wall of a burnt-out building there looms a lone, leafless tree trunk with a single protruding bough from which the protagonists, Vladimir (Hugo Weaving, Elrond in Lord of the Rings) and Estragon (Richard Roxburgh), intermittently discuss hanging themselves.
There is a theatrical experience as rare as it is wonderful, when you realise in the opening moments of a play that nothing will go wrong: you are about to spend two hours in the dark, captivated, moved and, when you leave, in some way changed. This is what Upton and his cast achieve in a production of luminous intelligence and virtuoso physicality.
Weaving’s sinuous, dandified Vladimir, Roxburgh’s wounded Estragon, Philip Quast, ruined and bombastic as Pozzo, and Luke Mullins’s menacingly vulnerable Lucky explore the resonances of Beckett’s text with elegant precision – and an acrobatic comic timing with hats, boots, suitcases and trousers that makes the physical world seem infinitely strange.
Godot’s cavernous reserves of pity, horror and comedy have seldom been so beautifully explored.
Until 13 June 2015. Tickets: 020 7638 8891; barbican.org.uk