Samuel Beckett subtitled his play in which nothing happens, twice, a tragicomedy. In Sydney Theatre Company’s production, which stars Richard Roxburgh and Hugo Weaving as tramps Estragon and Vladimir, it is the humour that provides many of the show’s most memorable moments.
On Zsolt Khell’s sparse set in which blackened tree stumps and a decaying wall – gaping and uneven like a line of broken teeth – sit behind a dilapidated proscenium arch, Gogo and Didi reprise their daily vigil for Godot, passing the time with discussion of boots and carrots; whether to abandon their post, hang themselves.
Roxburgh and Weaving play the men as an old couple, married in their youth and now facing old age: dependent on each other for companionship, perhaps even love, but never able to shake the niggle they could have done better elsewhere. They flirt, they argue, they fall back on the familiar refrains which punctuate their life together. The pair are physically close – Didi often with his hand on friend, guiding him – and despite the bellowing and proclamations to the contrary, seemingly unshakeably linked.
Are they too comfortable? Perhaps. There is great charm here, and the dialogue is quick and sharp, but the subtleties and differences in the characters occasionally feel lost, along with some of the more philosophical questions the play poses. Act Two brings more distinction between these characters, but at times it feels as if the show’s vaudeville and silent movie comedy elements – very well done here, echoing the crumbling theatricality of the set – are promoted at the expense of other themes.
This production was due to be directed by Tamas Ascher, who was prevented from traveling by illness. Instead, STC’s artistic director Andrew Upton stepped in, assisted by Anna Lengyel, and this Godot is notable for the physical direction – most particularly in the case of Pozzo (Philip Quast) and Lucky (Luke Mullins). The pair arrive on stage in striking style, as if drawn by a cartoonist, their bodies curving and straining in opposite directions; Lucky a fragile, twitching bird of a man, Quast solid and booming.
Their entrance also marks a change in momentum for the play. It only adds to the absurdism of the whole to suggest that the first half of the first act, in which Gogo and Didi begin their wait for Godot, is a little slow. But there is a marked shift of pace with the arrival of the landowner and his slave and Mullins is first-rate here as Lucky, capturing both the horror of his existence and the slapstick potential.
In fact, comedy throughout the play is well done. Even without an extremely supportive first-night audience, there is no resisting the humour in this production. But it could perhaps have touched more on those difficult questions about the futility of human existence, the desire to create meaning in our lives, friendship and suffering, that should make this play a more difficult watch.