During intermission at Waiting for Godot, the Sydney Theatre Company’s fantastic new production of Samuel Beckett’s most famous play, I overheard an amusing conversation. “What a cliff-hanger!” a young man remarked of the first act to a friend. “I wonder if Godot’s going to show up!”
He was being sarcastic, of course, and those within earshot chuckled knowingly. Waiting for Godot is a play in which, famously, nothing happens twice. Two men, Vladimir and Estragon, pass the time as best they can while waiting for a third man, Godot, to show up. Two other men, Pozzo and his slave, Lucky, come by. A young boy is sent to advise the men that Godot isn’t coming today but that he will certainly come tomorrow. All this is repeated, with a few depressing variations, in the second act. Were there a third, it would doubtless follow much the same template. Didi and Gogo ponder suicide. A lot.
As statements on the human condition go, Waiting for Godot is pretty bleak stuff. Like most bleak statements on the human condition, however, it’s also a bit of a laugh riot. Stepping in for Hungarian director Tamás Ascher, who conceived of this production but was unable to travel to Australia to direct it, Andrew Upton handles the material with a light touch, never overstressing its heavier points.
As Vladimir and Estragon, Hugo Weaving and Richard Roxburgh could almost be out-of-work vaudevillians, their actions informed by a certain slapstick spirit even if they’re not necessarily running about bumping into another. Beckett described the play as a tragicomedy and one could perhaps argue that Upton has dulled a good deal of the “tragi” by playing up the “comedy”. But the angst and despair are still there, if you’re looking for them, smuggled through in small, termitic details.
Disappearing behind a scruffy beard and several layers of dirt, Weaving’s Vladimir is a particularly well-drawn example of this, a would-be fop and wannabe optimist whose manifold tics and tremors—he’s constantly grinding his teeth and, more off-puttingly, involuntarily sticking his tongue out, licking his lips and moistening everything—are constantly betraying his internal crises.
That there is a good deal of pleasure to be taken from Weaving and Roxburgh’s interactions together almost goes without saying. These are two of our greatest actors and they’re at the top of their game. What is perhaps more surprising is the fact that they are very nearly upstaged by Philip Quast’s Pozzo and Luke Mullins’s Lucky. Looking like an emaciated albino doberman, and every bit as likely to bite, Mullins, in particular, is doing some career-best work here. His gnarled, tortured interpretation of Lucky’s famous “thinking” monologue is literally breathtaking, in that one is liable to hold one’s breath in suspense until it’s over.
Zsolt Khell’s set utilises the Sydney Theatre’s always rather difficult space perfectly, rendering Beckett’s country road, tree and low mound a burnt out, disused theatre, gutted and given over again to the elements. Piles of what might be ash build up along the back wall, in the cracks. Nick Schlieper’s lighting design is simple, declarative and effective. When night comes, it comes crashingly, everything plunging suddenly into blue. When the end comes, it comes similarly, only this time everything plunges into nothing. Godot doesn’t show.