Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you would know that Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’ is one of those seminal plays that redefined theatre in the twentieth century. It catapulted ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ into the mainstream and fuelled the global existentialist post-World War II dilemma. We are familiar with its themes of the endless stagnation and meaningless repetition of life; time as a subjective and painful oppressor; the intrinsic state of loneliness, even when we are with other people; and of course, the biggy, what is the objective truth in reference to faith?
Our two main characters, Vladimir (Hugo Weaving) and Estragon (Richard Roxburgh) are suffering from a crippling paralysis of action and even though they talk about breaking the cycle but they never do. Don’t we all know that feeling? There is ‘nothing to be done’ but the same thing every day. In a nutshell, it doesn’t get much bleaker than this.
This is the third time I’ve seen this play (maybe only the second- it’s one of those plays that feels like you’ve seen it more times than you have) and this will be the last (I hope). If I am to take the adage ‘to thine own self be true’, I love this play and I hate this play. I love it for its clever, ground-breaking ability to present a completely different, depressing world view through the power of its staging and style. I hate it because it’s painful to watch and it’s meant to be just that. It’s hard-going and it requires much of its audience to sit in the silence and repetition of the characters and by inference, reflect our inadequacy to act upon our intentions in a world without meaning.
Yet, there is brilliance in Beckett’s ability to comment on itself, on society, on the world and on religion. It can feel like eating those highly potent good-for-you vegetables that you don’t want to eat and that take so long to chew in their textual-vitamin-rich-blandness that you’d rather choke to death than digest it.
I tell you this as a long prelude to explain why any production of this play would struggle to make me love the three hours of watching it. I appreciate it, of course, but you will still need to rub my back in the last hour as I suffer in the ‘endless stagnation of my own existentialist crisis’.
Andrew Upton has given ‘Waiting for Godot’ a damn red hot go and previous director, Tamas Ascher, who had to pull out of the show, is not missed in this interpretation. Upton has earned his stripes and does great justice to Beckett’s masterpiece. If you love this play, you won’t be disappointed. If you struggle with this play, you won’t be disappointed. If you hate this play, why on earth would you go and see it in the first place? It would be like getting teeth pulled.
Roxburgh is superb in his physicality and comic timing and ability. I had forgotten how masterful he is in regards to stage presence and he steals this show. Add in Weaving’s strong performance, they are a powerhouse partnership and there is a dynamic energy and synergy between them. Philip Quast’s Pozzo, especially as oppressor, was also terrific and Luke Mullins, the only man to have had more work on stage this year than Toby Schmitz, is utterly transformed and transfixing. The cast bring it home.
Zsolt Khell’s set design, originally conceived with Ascher, of browns and blacks in the rubble of this post-apocalyptic world that also pays homage to the run-down theatre of its time is another chance to comment on art and life as indistinguishable. Alice Babidge’s threadbare and worn costumes are as depressing as the play itself and Nick Schlieper’s lights never make us feel comfortable as the state makes day grind into hours before hitting night and disappearing back into day so quickly. It’s like my heart-rate lowers, life has ebbed into a painful chore and relief never comes. Add the underscore of the discordant sound design of Max Lyandvert and I am completely immersed in the misery of this world.
The play feels longer than it needs to be and we were all warned via email days before the show that the advertised 2 hours and 30 minutes was closer to 3 and honestly, I desperately needed it to end. I saw the first preview, which was already a polished and professional outing, and I imagine they will shave a bit of time off it throughout the season and if they don’t, go with it- that’s the spirit of the play after all. And as I stated earlier, this is my crisis in the crisis of the play’s crisis. It is not the production. It fulfils all you’d want from this play.
If you’ve never seen a production of ‘Waiting for Godot’, this is a strong, faithful and appropriate production. Roxburgh and Mullins are incredible but they are all substantial and talented in this cast. If this play can be enjoyed, this is the production to see. Then have a very stiff drink post-show and maybe a massage.