Waiting for the man: STC’s Waiting for Godot

First performed in Paris in 1953, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is one of those cultural phenomena that can be endlessly referenced, adapted and mimicked by just about anybody and yet none of its original power or intent is lost. Essentially the story of two displaced people, tramps we could suppose, it is, famously, a play where ‘nothing’ happens, twice over. Initially opening to hostile reviews in London in 1955, Beckett’s play went on to break the mould of the “star-actor’s theatre,” and pushed the boundaries of what could be achieved in playwriting and in theatre, both linguistically, performatively, in a script, as well as “the expectation of success from stardom.”
The story of Vladimir and Estragon, Waiting for Godot is a perhaps a kind of Groundhog Day for these two tramps, an endless succession of phrases and ideas, actions, beats and moments, that never really seem to mean anything at all. And yet amongst this nothingness, there is a kind of warmth, a kind of shared humanity between us and Vladimir and Estragon, the hapless Lucky and the rotund Pozzo, the messenger boy. Presented here by Sydney Theatre Company, and directed by Andrew Upton (after Tamás Ascher was rendered unfit to travel), this Godot is a treat to behold.

Set within a crumbling proscenium-arched theatre, there is an unmistakable feel of a post-apocalyptic landscape, the crumbling remains of a wall along the rear of the stage, behind which an imposing grey concrete factory wall stands. Beckett’s tree is there too, a leaning grey-white spear sticking up through the blasted ground. In a way, Zsolt Khell’s set recalls the kind of liminal space many of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes find themselves in at important junctions in their dramatic arcs, a bit like Lear’s blasted heath. “We are all mad,” Estragon says. “Some of us remain so.” The madness that can be construed from Beckett’s endlessly repeating circular rhythms only serves to heighten the desolate and empty nature of the godforsaken ground upon which the two tramps tread.
The cast – more than ably led by Hugo Weaving and Richard Roxburgh, as Vladimir and Estragon respectively – are all superb, and it’s utterly enchanting watching them try and articulate their thoughts and ideas to each other through the futile reaches of their words and actions. And I don’t mean that in a disparaging way, either – whether you read Beckett’s play or see it performed, there’s a desperate kind of despair, a manic need to connect with someone else, yet also the inability to do so through mere words and actions; there needs to be something deeper, and that’s where Weaving and Roxburgh’s performances are so poignant, where Luke Mullins’ Lucky is so haunting, Philip Quast’s Pozzo so ghastly, Rory Potter’s Boy so innocent. Dressed in torn once-smart jackets and trousers, thinning shirts and dirty boots, there is a lived-in-ness to Vladimir and Estragon, a world-weariness through which a gentleness shines. While Roxburgh seems at times to be consciously – visibly – acting, his performance verging on that of his Rake (as seen on ABC1), there is also a poignancy underneath his manic tics which are bought out in the quiet scenes between him and Weaving at the end of each act. Weaving, always one of my favourite actors, does not appear to be consciously acting at all – there is a kind of gentle wonder, a compassion, a want to help and to be with Estragon that is quite beautiful. His Vladimir is capricious, light on his feet, a bit of an old clown, and you cannot help but kind of fall in love with his affable tramp. Luke Mullins, an actor who has had a tremendous year on Sydney’s stages this year (first Little Mercy at STC, then Angels in America and Small and Tired at Belvoir) is almost unrecognisable as Lucky, and appears much older than he is. Hidden under several layers of clothing and a shock of long white hair, his Lucky is a mess of the abuse and mistreatment directed at him by Quast’s Pozzo. Lucky’s speech late in Act One is truly revelatory, and you could feel the entire theatre riveted towards the stage, hanging on every single word that spilt from his mouth in rapid succession, the applause when he collapsed in a heap on the edge of the stage truly deserving. Philip Quast’s Pozzo, a rotund and brutish man with a shaved head, seems to be the very image of Capitalism, or at least a tier of society that feeds and thrives off others’ misfortune and subservience. No matter how sincerely his blinding is played, I still don’t think it is lasting or at least permanent, but rather a temporary blindness bought on by greed and gluttony, a kind of myopic or glaucomic blindness that is a direct result of his brutish habits. Rory Potter, as Boy, while essentially a messenger, the bringer of the news of Godot’s whereabouts, is haunting in his innocence, his honesty and perhaps unknowing confusion at what is happening (not that any of the others really have much more of an idea) is touching.
Watching Godot, I couldn’t help but see Vladimir and Estragon as an old married couple who’ve been together fifty-odd years (at least by their reckoning), and I think it’s something that Beckett could have been trying to get at. Underneath the philosophical and existential ideas, beneath the cravings and despair, behind the façade and the brave face that they put on, (and quite aside from any shenanigans about Godot being ‘God’) there is a play about “relationships and philosophies [private and shared], and essential needs and how people behave.” It’s about how we all are desperately searching for someone to connect with, to cling onto and weather the storm that life throws at us; how we’re all waiting for someone, whether we recognise them or not. Like Lear on the heath, we need a fool to keep us company, and sometimes there’s no one better to be our companion than our oldest (and or best) friend. And that’s what I think Godot is ultimately about.

Theatre playlist: 37. Sounds of Silence, Simon & Garfunkel

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