Sydney Theatre Company’s intelligent revival is a performance which dissects the idea of theatre itself, with some great touches offsetting a lack of intimacy
“I can’t go on,” cries Richard Roxburgh’s Estragon. “That’s what you think,” replies Hugo Weaving’s Vladimir, quick as a flash. Despair becomes repartee in Samuel Beckett’s great play in which the act of waiting itself is caught like a buzzing bluebottle in a glass jar and dissected: the uncertainty, the boredom, the dawdling, the attempts to fill up the time that weighs so heavily and passes so slowly and yet reduces 50 years to a blink. As Pozzo observes, we are given life “astride the grave” and then “the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more”.
He could just as well be describing theatre itself, the bright lights and the sudden blackouts, the gaudy illuminations that grab our attention as if we are moths and that are snuffed by the sudden fall of the guillotine-like curtain. Vladimir and Estragon both recall Shakespeare’s “walking shadow” or “poor player” who “struts and frets his hour upon the stage and is heard no more”.
But so do we, the watchers in the dark. Passing the time between the grave and the grave, by idly watching two men doing nothing but wait and clown around a little. “How time flies when one has fun!” exclaims Vladimir after one of the pair’s routines, a particularly nasty re-enactment of Pozzo (Philip Quast) and the not so lucky Lucky’s (Luke Mullins) abusive relationship. Weaving and Roxburgh play like gleeful children copying torturers.
Sydney Theatre Company’s revival, directed by Andrew Upton, turns Beckett into a performance, playing on the idea of theatre, and the pair as a dystopian Laurel and Hardy stranded in what is both clearly a theatre but also an apocalyptic industrial landscape. In Zsolt Khell’s design the back wall of the theatre also suggests the silhouette of a distant blasted city.
This is an evening that is clear, intelligent and boasts real chemistry between Weaving (bearded and unrecognisable from his roles in The Matrix and Lord of the Rings) and Roxburgh. There is something of the big brother, little brother in their relationship, one full of irritations but also an unspoken protective affection as if Weaving’s Vladimir understands their predicament but also knows that they must go on. Will go on. Because that is all they can do. Until darkness falls.
We are always in safe hands here, hands that you might describe as tender in the way they revere Beckett. But there are downsides to a production that sometimes seems to have considered every line and its meaning so carefully that it feels over-studied and like a series of set pieces and unshowy turns rather than an organic whole. The vastness of the space creates a sense of our insignificance in the universe, but nonetheless there is a lack of intimacy, even when this Vladimir and Estragon come and sit on the edge of the stage and talk directly to us while simultaneously being unaware of our presence.
It’s a lovely touch in a revival that gropes at the idea that even when we are together in a shared space we are always completely alone and that even as we speak to fill the silence we are smothered by it.
• At Barbican, London, until 13 June. Box office: 0845 120 7511