Sydney Theatre, November 16
It’s just three years since Ian McKellen and Roger Rees toured here in a British production of Waiting for Godot that played up the vaudevillian theatricality in Samuel Beckett’s extraordinary, absurdist drama, with Vladimir and Estragon relating to each other like a well-oiled comedy duo.
Now comes a Sydney Theatre Company production starring Richard Roxburgh as Estragon and Hugo Weaving as Vladimir that undoes you emotionally in a far more profound way. The comedy is still there, beautifully so – though less self-consciously vaudevillian – but beneath both the humour and the existential bleakness is great tenderness, humanity, pathos and a disarming sense of caring.
Even the oppressed Lucky (Luke Mullins) gently wipes the face of his tyrannical master Pozzo (Philip Quast), having helped him to his feet at they prepare to depart in Act Two. It’s an incredibly touching moment that takes you completely by surprise and has you suddenly re-evaluating their relationship.
The production was to have been helmed by Hungarian director Tamas Ascher, who directed Roxburgh and Weaving in the STC’s acclaimed 2012 Uncle Vanya. When an injury left him unable to fly, Andrew Upton stepped into the breach, with Ascher’s assistant Anna Lengyel as his associate, and directs a production of great clarity that is light on its feet yet terribly moving.
Zsolt Khell’s stark set resembles a charred, empty theatre, open to the back wall, within a false proscenium studded with broken and missing light bulbs. The famous tree is a thin streak of trunk with a single branch that arches heavenwards, disappearing from view.
It is beautifully lit by Nick Schlieper, who bathes the stage in a sudden snap of blue light as night descends, while Alice Babidge’s costumes are suitably tattered and worn.
Weaving and Roxburgh are like two sad but resilient clowns who have made their way together, for better or worse. Roxburgh’s boyish Gogo is the more lost, despairing and occasionally angry, tugging plaintively at his ill-fitting boots and looking to Didi for comfort and food, yet he is playfully funny too.
Weaving’s Didi is jauntier and more in control, rolling the words around his mouth as he enunciates crisply like an old theatrical pro, the one who seems to remember more of the past, including the fact that they are to meet the enigmatic Godot.
Quast and Mullins are more than their match as Pozzo and Lucky who appear in both acts, helping to alleviate the endless waiting.
Mincing onto the stage, his back arched dramatically as if promenading amongst high society, Quast is superb as the pompous, grandiose Pozzo: a big, corpulent figure compared to his scrawny servant. With his rich, resonant voice, Quast’s Pozzo is like a ringmaster in the first act, brutally in control. In the second act, now blind, he staggers on like a wounded bull, his authority undone.
With long, straggly white hair, Mullins is a ghostly yet feral presence and knocks you for six with his explosive, tortured outpouring of Lucky’s famous “thinking” monologue.
On opening night Rory Potter completed the exemplary cast as the boy who arrives, twice, to say that Godot won’t be coming.
In this thrilling, incredibly special production, you experience afresh Beckett’s iconic, exquisitely written play about everything and nothing. It really does seem to encompass the whole of life. Unforgettable.
Waiting for Godot runs at the Sydney Theatre until December 21. Bookings: 9250 1777 or sydneytheatre.com.au
An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on November 24