Roslyn Packer (formerly Sydney) Theatre, April 7
In 2013, Andrew Upton stepped into the breach when Tamas Ascher withdrew from directing Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot for Sydney Theatre Company.
In his place, but working with Ascher’s assistant Anna Lengyel and using Zsolt Khell’s set designed for Ascher, Upton helmed a superb production with Hugo Weaving as Vladimir, which goes to London in June.
Upton and Weaving have now collaborated on an equally impressive production of Beckett’s Endgame – often considered a companion piece to Godot – with Weaving both performing and involved as associate director.
The post-apocalyptic, absurdist drama has four characters trapped in a room waiting for death essentially. The controlling Hamm (Weaving) is blind and confined to a wheelchair. His mistreated servant-son Clov (Tom Budge), who is crippled and can’t sit down, scurries around looking after him, while threatening to leave.
Hamm’s amputee parents Nagg (Bruce Spence) and Nell (Sarah Peirse) live in two dustbins – here dirty old oilcans, suggesting environmental disaster.
Clov periodically climbs a ladder to peer through two windows at the nothingness on land and sea outside, while there are glimpses of a normal life in times past through Nagg and Nell’s memories of boating and cycling.
It’s bleak but the writing is brilliant, laced with unexpected humour and devastating insights as Beckett looks deep into the agony of being human.
The Beckett Estate is famously rigid, requiring productions to stick to the letter of Beckett’s very specific stage directions. Upton and set designer Nick Schlieper have come up with an imposing, monumental staging that abides more or less faithfully with Beckett’s requirements but makes for a far more threatening space than a bare, grey-lit room.
Schlieper cleverly reduces the width of the stage to create a more intimate focus, while a towering, dark grey wall looms forebodingly over them. It looks like a fortified stone lighthouse, in which various windows and doors have been filled in, while the thickness of the wall is visible when the curtains are opened at the two remaining windows.
Because the wall is so high, disappearing from sight, Clov requires a long ladder to reach the windows, rather than the usual “small stepladder”, which adds to the comedy of his daily ritual.
Renee Mulder’s gloriously grubby, shabby costumes are full of wonderful little details. Clov wears boots most of the time but at one point he has a grungy rabbit slipper on one foot, as just one example. It’s all beautifully lit by Schlieper, with reflections dappling the wall, while dripping water (sound by Max Lyandvert) can he heard.
Weaving is in masterful form as Hamm. Legs tied and wearing opaque glasses, his face and arms, and even his tongue at one point, are wonderfully expressive but it’s his extraordinarily eloquent voice that mesmerises, so full of different textures, tones and sounds: velvety one minute, snarling the next. His Hamm is a tyrant but with a jaunty, fruity presence and a wry sense of humour. It’s a compelling performance.
Budge’s performance is all about body language. Bent-over, he performs with a robustly comical physicality. The way he removes the sheet covering Hamm, or climbs the ladder, or interacts with Hamm, suggests well-oiled routines he has developed over time to fill the endless, empty days, while his attempt to get rid of a flea in his pants is priceless.
The appearance of Spence’s elongated face, caked in white make-up, is a hilarious sight when his head emerges from the oilcan and he and Peirse tug at the heart as Nagg and Nell.
Endgame is almost unbearably bleak but at the same time surprisingly funny. Upton and his fine cast find that balance perfectly in an engrossing, lively, moving production.
Endgame plays at the Roslyn Packer Theatre until May 9. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777
A version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on April 12