Rima Sabina Aouf
We in the media received a funny but perturbing press release a few weeks ago regarding what’s perhaps the Sydney Theatre Company’s most anticipated production of the year, Waiting for Godot. “[The cast have] been waiting for a man who will never turn up,” it read. “They’ve been waiting for director Tamás Ascher.”
Oh most fortuitous of tragedies! Lacking probably the most important person on set has never looked so promising. After Ascher was ruled unable to fly from Hungary due to an injury, rehearsals proceeded in an uncertain manner, with STC artistic director Andrew Upton running the room and eventually stepping wholly into the director’s role, Ascher’s translator and dramaturg Anna Lengyel acting as something of an Ascher-by-proxy, and everyone involved trying to interpret the text in the spirit of Ascher but without getting too servile about it (actor Richard Roxburgh writes amusingly of the experience for the SMH).
Fortunately, through all that, they’ve pulled off a ripper of a Godot and absolutely one of the year’s most memorable shows. The play is famous as the defining work of absurdism on stage, capturing the utter pointlessness of human existence in its form — in other words, not the most enjoyable comedy around. And yet, in this team’s hands, it’s a consuming, almost fun three hours.
Waiting for Godot is, in case you missed it, about two guys waiting for Godot. Occasionally they meet another two guys, who are not Godot. Vladimir (Hugo Weaving), usually called ‘Didi’, and Estragon (Roxburgh), or ‘Gogo’, are chums, or at least have been bound together beneath this barren tree for some time — the habitual odd couple. When the spectral, silent and decrepit Lucky (Luke Mullins) enters, pulling his imperious master Pozzo (Philip Quast) by rope, then… well, then nothing. It has no consequence. But it’s a spectacular diversion.
After intermission, much the same thing happens, though the words are different and the tree has grown three leaves.
Playwright Samuel Beckett was notoriously controlling over how Waiting for Godot was performed, and his estate continues that vigilance, meaning that you pretty much know what you’re going to get with a production of Godot. Without huge leeway for interpretation, a lot of the interest comes from the pairing of actors, and Weaving and Roxburgh are sublime.
Not only are they heavyweights of Australian drama, they’re hilarious together, with an easy chemistry and camaraderie that led Ascher to envisage them in the roles while they were all working on Uncle Vanya in 2011. Roxburgh’s Estragon is the grumpy, sincere clown of the piece, while Weaving’s more with-it Vladimir still has wide-eyed optimism and relish. Their performances are not totally but nearly naturalistic, such that their tete a tetes seem quite coherent; it might not be Beckett’s ideal, but it is appropriately earthy for a contemporary Australian audience.
More flourish comes from the magisterial Quast (you can get an idea of the man’s sheer presence in this clip from his famous performance as Javert in Les Miserables) and Mullins, who is unrecognisable as Lucky. After being utterly abused and put upon, Lucky is required to speak just once, and to see it is basically traumatic (in a good way). This is a once-in-a-lifetime cast of talent.
Complete with a set by Zsolt Khell (one of Hungary’s leading stage designers and a frequent Ascher collaborator) that could take up hours of your attention on its own and beautifully intense chiaroscuro-casting lighting by the wonderful Nick Schlieper, STC’s Godot is definitive. Absurd beginnings have produced magnificent ends.
Image by Lisa Tomasetti.