Sydney Morning Herald
November 9, 2013
Samuel Beckett’s absurdist masterwork is always a challenge, writes actor Richard Roxburgh. But when the director goes missing, things really get interesting.
Richard Roxburgh as Vladimir with Hugo Weaving as Estragon. Photo: Ingvar Kenne
It is the Friday evening before rehearsals are due to start when I get the phone call from Andrew Upton, artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company.
“Erm. Rox. Here’s the thing. Tamas is a bit crook and he won’t be able to join us on Monday. It’s some sort of a pinched nerve thing in his neck which means that – well, it means he can’t really fly. Or, in fact, be vertical.”
We are rehearsing an absurdist play about the most famous no-show in history with a director who hasn’t shown up.
“It’s not … erm … serious, in the sense that he is OK. He just can’t really come out for the start of rehearsals. Because of the flying thing. And the vertical thing.”
“But we think he’ll be better soon. We reckon he’ll be good to fly out towards the end of the second week of rehearsals.”
“Yep. Present and vertical.”
Now, when it comes to directors, verticality is preferable, but not mandatory. I’ve worked quite happily with some of the more horizontal types along the way. Presence, though, is pretty much a prerequisite. But if your director is not going to be present, what better play to not be present at than Waiting for Godot?
Somewhere in the shadows, even Sam Beckett, for whom laughter in life was a painfully scarce commodity, is allowing himself a little chuckle.
The Tamas in question is Tamas Ascher, the brilliant Hungarian theatre maker. Hugo Weaving and I leapt at the chance to work with him again after being directed by him in the STC’s 2010 production of Uncle Vanya. It was during rehearsals of that play that the idea of this production of Waiting for Godot was hatched. Tamas was watching a moment in Act Four between Hugo’s Dr Astrov and my Uncle Vanya, both of us dangling off a table, our characters exhausted, having disgraced themselves variously, while Vanya muses on the notion of suicide. Tamas burst out laughing, as only a Central European could during a discussion of suicide, and told us (via translation, his English being virtually non-existent) that we really must play Vladimir and Estragon in Godot.
We are at the Wharf Theatre on a glorious blue day in Sydney. Day one of rehearsals follows timeworn patterns, as familiar as ugg boots. Coffee. Introductions and meeting up with old friends from cast and crew. Coffee. Presentation of the set, discussion of costumes. Coffee. Finally, a read-through of the script. Coffee.
But on this occasion there is an elephant in the room, or rather an elephant not in the room.
Conversations begin in earnest about finding a practical solution to how to rehearse this notoriously tricky 20th-century absurdist masterwork with a director who is horizontal in Hungary. Present at these discussions are Anna Lengyel, Tamas’ vivacious translator and dramaturg, as well as our set and costume designers, stage managers and the cast.
I kick things off by helpfully suggesting that if Tamas can’t fly to us then we should all fly to him and rehearse for five weeks in his loungeroom in Budapest. Sadly, Andrew Upton and Anna have an alternate plan of attack. Together they will oversee the rehearsal room for the first couple of weeks until Tamas arrives. Andrew, as a director and adaptor of plays, will steer us through as we pick apart the text around the table. Anna, with her years of close work with Tamas, will to some extent channel him until he arrives. There is some whimsical talk of Skype calls, and even videoing rehearsals for our director to watch supine in Hungary. There is much concern in the room for Tamas’ health, but Anna assures us that he is fine, that this is a condition he’s had in the past, and that he will almost certainly be joining us in two weeks.
It’s official: we are waiting for Tamas.
Alongside Hugo and myself at the first reading of the play are Phillip Quast and Luke Mullins in the roles of Pozzo and Lucky respectively. The first read- through of any play is daunting, but this one in particular comes with history and baggage. It is a work of undeniable beauty – the writing is exquisite, painfully specific, hilarious and bleak. When it first arrived on the desk of Peter Hall in 1955, it had been performed only in French. It was about to change not only the life of the precocious 24-year-old English theatre director, but the shape of theatre itself. Perhaps more than any other modern play, it changed things. It re-imagined the very architecture of storytelling in theatre, and challenged all prior expectations of narrative, plot and dialogue.
So … pretty much a breeze.
Some things are clarified in the read-through. It is clear, for instance, that it’s funny – and it’s clear that Sam wanted it to be that way. But there are also pages of inscrutable exchanges, repeated motifs and thoughts, and persistent, helical and despairingly sad refrains. Beckett’s world shifts without explanation from dream state to post-apocalyptic nightmare to existential void to circus buffoonery.
I for one, am worried. A large part of an actor’s early work on any text is to burrow out the meanings of things, the connections between thoughts, shifting emotional currents. In the absence of these landmarks, how the devil is it all going to happen?
Week one continues with conversations around the table led largely by Andrew, with much input from Anna. The script is dismantled and pored over section by section. We can postpone actually having to get up on the floor and start acting the thing.
The first couple of mornings also signal the commencement of costume fittings and, as ever, I find myself pulling on Dead Men’s Pants. Always those pants … immense, billowy, scratchy and smelling of naphthalene: marvellous. Costume designer Alice Babidge assures me my boots are a work in progress. Apparently genuinely ancient, stinking pieces of costumery are increasingly rare, having been snapped up by hipsters.
Beckett, as in all other elements of the play, was very detailed about costumes. This doesn’t leave much wiggle room for a designer, and any flights of imagination will be in minutia.
The same can be said for set design. Beckett is quite clear in his description of the physical environment of the play. Directors have ignored this at their own peril, and there is much apocrypha about productions that have been swiftly shut down for flying in the face of Beckett’s instructions. You will never see an all-nude production of Waiting for Godot, nor one performed in spandex, or under water, or with ray guns. Which is a bit of a shame if you think about it.
Week one ends with us still huddled around the discussion table, trying to piece together fragments of meaning in the words. But Sam’s dialogue seems deliberately impervious to such scrutiny. In fact, at a certain point it’s important to let go of all this, or it will drive us foaming mad. Acting 101 questions such as “What does my character want in this moment?” are just funny passing clouds in this play.
Hopefully in the second week, up on our feet on the rehearsal floor, we will scratch and claw and slip and humiliate ourselves into some kind of deeper understanding. Or die horribly in an Irish bog having tried.
Still we wait for Tamas …
Week two finds us creeping sideways out onto the rehearsal floor. We have postponed as hard as we can. There is no more coffee to be drunk and we have nattered until the nattering is done. Day one up on the floor is always hideous. Nothing will ever dampen the sensations of self-consciousness and fraudulence on this day. I’ve long ago given in to allowing those sensations to co-exist with the blind panic of having to find the physical expression of the work.
Often the first couple of weeks up on the floor are rehearsed with script in hand. But it becomes clear this will be a pointless exercise. The intricate curlicues of word patterns in Waiting for Godot mean that it all needs to be in our brains as soon as possible. But alas – in the absence of normal linear discourse it becomes apparent that Waiting for Godot is also going to be an absolute bastard to learn.
Andrew and Anna work as a sort of tag team Beckett wrestling duo. They watch intently as Hugo and I stumble through the opening section of the play. Andrew offers suggestions for where and how the evolving and devolving conversations between Beckett’s two hapless protagonists occur. Anna adds her thoughts, and presumably also those of our in-absentia director. “What would Tamas think?” becomes something of a running joke. We are rehearsing an absurdist play about the most famous no-show in history with a director who hasn’t shown up.
Luckily the combined theatre experience and imagination in the room seems to actually be functioning. It’s not without minor disagreements, but thus far happily no hair has been torn out nor teeth lost on the rehearsal room floor. The initial stench of fakery and sheer bad acting of my first day up on the floor retreats somewhat as the week progresses. We all start to find some sense of the much-needed playful quality in the work. But there is a polarity in this play which is very hard to get a bead on. It’s the evil genius of Beckett, and it’s not like anything I’ve ever done before. It is by turns completely wacky, even slapstick, and terribly serious. Abandoning ourselves to both of those poles is proving well nigh impossible in these early rehearsals. It’s as if you have to attack the work with a five-year-old’s openness and physical abandon, but with the gravity of … well … Sam Beckett.
The entrance of the characters Pozzo and Lucky adds additional layers of complexity and confusion. We all sense the substrata of beauty and moment in the words, but they seem to be trapped beneath an impenetrable surface. Our natural inclination as actors is to cling to the passages that make complete logical sense, only to find that in the following minute they’ve been jettisoned by the playwright. I feel like a drowning man who’s been thrown a life-ring made of Swiss cheese.
When I’m having a really bad day, I look at what poor Luke Mullins has to do. As Lucky, he is hauled around on a length of rope, beaten, spat on, and treated as a packhorse.
All of this he endures in complete silence, until Beckett calls on him to erupt to life with surely history’s most abstruse monologue. A brilliant, hideous, stammering, nightmare of a thing. Bon chance, Luke! Wish I could help, mate, but I’m down here with my Swiss cheese …
At the end of the second week our waiting is finally over. It’s not that Godot has turned up apologising for all the confusion and lack of punctuality; it’s the news that Tamas will not be coming at all. His pinched nerve is taking longer than expected to heal, and the medical opinion is that he will not be able to fly for at least another two weeks. This will make his arrival precariously close to our preview week. It’s determined that the only way forward is to continue as we began.
Andrew will step up to officially direct and Anna will continue to provide her insights. Tamas will act as a kind of spiritual mascot to the work.
The confirmation that Tamas won’t be coming seems to galvanise the room. Andrew arrives at rehearsals brimming with enthusiasm and creativity. By the end of week three we have had frequent glimpses of the exhilarating possibilities in the play. Predictably, this seems to happen through the process of letting go. Beckett seems to be exploring some world at the very finest needle-tip of existence, and no amount of close examination can prepare you for it. It is about releasing wholeheartedly. Hold onto your battered old hobo hat! Clutch at your Dead Man’s Pants so that they don’t go tumbling down! And let go!
Somewhere, in another world, Sam Beckett and Tamas Ascher sit chuckling together over my musings:
“So. He thinks that’s how to do it …
ha ha ha …”
Waiting for Godot is at the Sydney Theatre from Tuesday.