The International Beckett Season at the Barbican showcases a range of productions of the plays of Samuel Beckett, the centrepiece being this revival of the 2013 version by the Sydney Theatre Company.
In the roles of Vladimir (Didi) and Estragon (Gogo) are a pair of actors best known on these shores for their screen credits: Hugo Weaving, who was Elrond in the ‘Lord of the Rings Trilogy’ and Mitzi in ‘The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’; and Richard Roxburgh, who was The Duke in ‘Moulin Rouge’ and Sherlock Holmes in ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’. Not looking remotely film-starish here, both men effortlessly inhabit their roles and are clearly at ease with working together.
Playing broadly in the vaudevillian style, Weaving is clearly the posher of the two, with decayed dignity (note the way he puts on his new hat and tosses his greasy hair), while Roxburgh is lower class, with comic expressions, sleepy resignation, and more accepting of the plodding boredom of their daily lives as tramps, eating carrots and radishes, suffering from tight boots and urinary problems, and waiting for the ever-elusive Godot.
Each day in this bleak landscape with one stick-like tree and a derelict black building facing back-on to nothingness is clearly much the same, where the two friends pass the time in idle chit-chat, attempts to entertain each other, and thoughts of suicide which they can never follow through. Into this limited world wander two men who impact on the story in different ways in each of the two halves – the blustering, charming and faintly ridiculous Pozzo, who is all bombast in his first appearance and vaguely pathetic in his second one; and witch-like Lucky, panting and slavering with the bags he can only briefly put down.
As Pozzo, Philip Quast impacts both as the cruel slavemaster and the blackly humorous bon viveur who clearly loves the fine things in life with his wine, pipe and fur-trimmed coat. Starkly bullet-headed and neatly-bearded, he resembles a carnival barker who is slightly corrupt – and in the second half there is a fair amount of physical comedy which is well performed with Weaving in particular. Lucky has wild white hair and a ghostly, sickly pallor, as if a gust of wind would finish him off – Luke Mullins catches the sense of the absurd in his demeanor and monologue, but he didn’t quite pack the emotional punch or the virtuosity of delivery I saw in a previous Lucky (Richard Dormer in 2006).
For the first UK production in the 1950s, director Peter Hall stated he did not understand the play and did not need to to make it a success: for the Sydney production, Andrew Upton explains in the programme that this version is a group collaboration using Beckett’s detailed stage directions as a starting point. Certainly the cast work well together in a play which must be physically and mentally draining to perform, and there are several lovely moments between Weaving, Roxburgh and Quast in particular, causing some genuine audience laughter as well as a reflection of the emotional starkness of this prime example of Theatre of the Absurd.