Waiting for Godot - Sydney Theatre Company

Waiting For Godot | Sydney Theatre Company

June, 2015 | Barbican, London (International Beckett Season)

Waiting for Godot is a play that’s impossible to label, define or understand and famously (and accurately) described as one in which “nothing happens, twice”* – and it heads the Samuel Beckett Festival at the Barbican. Beckett often spoke out against the need to understand or interpret his work in the face of widespread despair by many a director, actor or critic. I propose that Beckett is more of a performance artist than a playwright in this respect. When you watch these unconventional pieces you are seeing live-art, a happening, staged minimalism, maths, art installation, philosophy, history, a dance; the texts are equal to or more choreographed than spoken. The viewer experiences his work (for wont of a less pretentious line) and often becomes self-conscious and reflective.

Beckett was both a visual artist and music conductor, in essence; his work is an essay of movement and physicality as well as a composition of carefully structured rhythm and language. Waiting for Godot is often played very seriously, mistaking the existential undercurrents as an existential play, and so the play drags on and on. A keynote could be that Beckett places humans in various inhuman landscapes, the performance need not be robotic. When it’s done well, as demonstrated by the Sydney Theatre company, it’s lively, witty, tense, often deeply emotional and very funny. The cast speak with native Australian accents, but with the minor detail of Vladimir, the reflective gentleman, speaking with a closer-to-English voice while Estragon ‘Gogo’, more earthly and emotional in rough Australian*. (Vladimir philosophises and constantly rearranges his hat while Estragon constantly fiddles with his Boots and complains of hunger.) What struck me about this piece was how natural it appeared, and how instead of the pained lengths of time that elapses between speaking, the scenes ran smoothly, still with those moments of silence. Pauses were present in a more calm, contemplative manner. Despite this there was a creeping tension through Estragon’s maddening anxiety that was always abated by Vladimir’s fatherly insistence on calm. The dynamic is constant throughout so while “nothing happens” there is certainly something watchable and compelling.

Pozzo, played by musical theatre star Philip Quast (Les Miserables) saves them from another uneventful day with his slave, Lucky (‘Lackey’) and their relationship is often believed to be a representation of Vladimir and Estragon’s relationship taken to the extreme. His size, booming voice and flare for pomposity totally dominate in that natural musical theatre manner. While finding it hard not to sing the text, his skills helped to identify with the rhythm, a given example being ‘Here here pity’ (as the cruel Pozzo of 1st Act) and ‘Here Pity Pity’ (Helpless and blind in 2nd Act.) The character’s expression changes with the pacing of the lines like Shakespeare and other classic texts, which frequently occurs across Beckett’s work (apparently he was too shy to work on Shakespeare despite many requests from performers under his direction.)

Lucky’s ‘Dance’ which is described in the text simply as ‘[Lucky dances]’ was created around the idea that he is the embodiment of ‘human suffering’. Using images by Francis Bacon and Goyer, actor Luke Mullins presented a disjointed set of gestures that breaks down halfway as if he’s forgotten the next bit. When it’s repeated the breakdown is apparently deliberate. Repetition of movement is a constant in Beckett pieces. His monologue is spoken like a broken excerpt of radio, absurdly long and repetitive and gathering in tension to the point that the other characters are crawling around the floor in agony- a cruel mid-way peak that won applause in the face of the first uneventful hour.

The lovely, silvery design by Zsolt Khell, proposed the usual ‘Tree in a desolate landscape’ with a gentle twist of having the action take place in the shadows of a burnt out building, with an unusual placing of interior radiators seemingly on the outside as if the stones and tree have appeared inside a long ruined building- both sheltered and unsheltered. This confused the sense of place and paralleled liminal boundaries often seen in other Beckett plays such as Endgame, Krap’s Last Tape and Footfalls, of which for the last two Beckett chose the favoured ‘darkness’ setting so that the characters could disappear as they walked away. Above the actors hang exposed, redundant stage lamps, a pointed reference to the theatre setting, a symbol of the old and dead, a nod to Beckett steamrolling over conventional theatre tropes.

*Vladimir played by Hugo Weaving (fanboy hero as Lord Elrond and Agent Smith)
Estragon played by Richard Roxburgh (has his finger chopped off in a Mission Impossible 2)

p.s.

The English-speaking world often maintains the significance of the theological references, which apparently bored Beckett to the point of regretting the title. However, in what I can only believe to be mocking, Beckett suggested some alternatives, all of which imply that the title was destiny: ‘Godillots’ is French Slang for boots, Beckett mentions a race where the spectators were waiting for a cyclist named Godeau, and apparently in Paris, Beckett was stood up by a man called Godot.

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