Waiting for Godot exists in an almost surrealist time space, and sets can sometimes be the making or breaking of a production: whether you can believe that the space can house the semi-surreal characters and the unsteady passage of time they inhabit.
Andrew Upton’s production for the Sydney Theatre Company, part of the Barbican’s International Beckett Festival, manages this magnificently: Zsolt Khell’s stage is a sort of post-industrial wasteland, black iron radiators and ruined walls, clay bollard-growths sprouting from the stage liberally while a lone tree defies the sterility around it.
If, as both Beckett’s text and the subtext of this production seem to suggest, they are waiting at the end of civilisation, this is exactly the kind of setting we would expect. The tree Vladimir describes as “covered in leaves” hosts a tiny sprout of them, an understated bleakness that is seen throughout the production. Dangling above it all is a defunct lighting rig: surreal in the fact that it’s lack of use seems to suggest it is part of their world, adding a sense of the unreal – or perhaps a touch of meta-narrative – to the whole thing.
This is a play where nightfall comes at the flick of a switch, and where the audience flick from skeletons to bog and back again. It is interested in many things, but normality is not one of them.
Despite this, the excellent Hugo Weaving and Richard Roxburgh (Vladimir and Estragon respectively) ground the performance, giving it a sense of reality in the face of the confusing and the downright bizarre. Roxburgh shifts between pitiful limp and half-swagger as his moods swing, and Weaving has a teasing half-lilt to much of his delivery, an enjoyable counterpoint to the more gruff Roxburgh. They leap and twist between grief, depression, joy and amusement with perfect grace, making the transitions seem believable – even understandable. Godot is a play that see-saws between hilarity and subdued horror, and the actors’ physical performances help both aspects along. Interpretation of Lucky (Luke Mullins) often drastically differs between productions, and here he is an almost skeletal spectre, often a genuinely disturbing sight, who provokes hushed winces as often as he does laughter. Both Roxburgh and Weaving excel at physical humour, particularly in moments of prop-induced improvisation, one of which gets the loudest reaction of the night.
Empathy and love are difficult topics in the world which Beckett has created: we cannot apply our own notions to them in this society that fails to explain itself within the 2 or so hours in which the play unfolds. The cast members, however, do an admirable job of navigating those reactions within the confines of the text, a layer of muted grief underlying it all. As Estragon utters his final “let’s go” – the final lines of the play – there is an air of quiet resignation to them. Sometimes, there is hope that Estragon and Vladimir will run off to some kind of freedom, but this performance leaves no room for that. They will return to wait, as perhaps they always have, and always will.