As part of this month’s International Beckett Season at the Barbican, Sydney Theatre Company have revived their 2013 production of Waiting for Godot. And 60 years on since this iconic play was first staged in this country it has lost none of its power to provoke, puzzle, amuse and move. The tropes of Beckett’s theatrical landscape may have become much more familiar to us but this absurdist tragicomedy in which ‘nothing happens, twice’ still seems timelessly relevant to the human predicament.
Andrew Upton’s entertaining production certainly passes the time quickly (though it would have passed anyway), with much emphasis on the play’s debt to music-hall humour and silent film comedy. Vladimir and Estragon’s banter and slapstick while waiting for the elusive Godot resembles a vagrant double act on the scrap heap clowning about in order to fend off boredom and anxiety, where even talk about hanging themselves is played for gallows humour. There’s a lot of comic business in this highly physical interpretation, like an existentialist version of Laurel and Hardy, swapping battered hats and horsing around in their ill-fitting, bedraggled suits.
But more tenderly they also resemble an old married couple who bicker, sulk and make up, with ‘Didi’ playing the comforter and ‘Gogo’ the more vulnerable one, in a touching display of mutual emotional dependence. They might get annoyed with each other and talk about leaving, but they both know that in the end it is only their companionship that keeps them going in a world devoid of feature or meaning, where one day succeeds another in monotonous anonymity. The visually arresting arrival of the whip-cracking Pozzo and his hapless porter Lucky shows a more abusive, if ambivalent, relationship. This production may seem a bit too cosy at times and not plumb the depths of Beckett’s stark metaphysical vision, but any transient comfort is always fringed by a sense of unease.
Hugo Weaving’s bearded Vladimir, the more patient and philosophical of the pair, has a touch of gentlemanly elegance in his speech and movement, contrasting with Richard Roxburgh’s pessimistic and disgruntled Estragon, who is near the end of his tether – and they bounce of each other with a real feeling of warmth. Philip Quast’s booming, flamboyant Pozzo is a larger-than-life figure later pathetically cut down to size as he becomes totally dependent on Luke Mullins’s long-suffering but surprisingly strong Lucky, in a role reversal that sees him willingly pull the shortened rope between them as the mute leads the blind.
Designer Zsolt Khell’s dilapidated proscenium arch echoes the metatheatricality of a play that involves so much game-playing, though stunted tree stumps, crumbling brickwork and a blackened back wall suggest a much darker, even post-apocalyptic scenario in which survivors while away their ennui in desperate hope of salvation. And Nick Schlieper’s tangential lighting draws out a long shadow from the sole living tree slenderly stretching above into eternity, before bluish night-time takes over, and then blackout.