The Latest STC Waiting For Godot Reviews, New Production Photos of Hugo Weaving, Richard Roxburgh

Several new reviews for Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Waiting For Godot have been posted since my last update, including several with great new photos… I’ll share excerpts here, but many warrant full reading at the sites of origin: just click on the links. All photos are by Lisa Tomasetti/STC.

Vicky Frost, The Guardian: ” In Sydney Theatre Company’s production, which stars Richard Roxburgh and Hugo Weaving as tramps Estragon and Vladimir, it is the humour that provides many of the show’s most memorable moments….  Roxburgh and Weaving play the men as an old couple, married in their youth and now facing old age: dependent on each other for companionship, perhaps even love, but never able to shake the niggle they could have done better elsewhere. They flirt, they argue, they fall back on the familiar refrains which punctuate their life together. The pair are physically close – Didi often with his hand on friend, guiding him – and despite the bellowing and proclamations to the contrary, seemingly unshakeably linked….

This production was due to be directed by Tamas Ascher, who was prevented from traveling by illness. Instead, STC’s artistic director Andrew Upton stepped in, assisted by Anna Lengyel, and this Godot is notable for the physical direction – most particularly in the case of Pozzo (Philip Quast) and Lucky (Luke Mullins). The pair arrive on stage in striking style, as if drawn by a cartoonist, their bodies curving and straining in opposite directions; Lucky a fragile, twitching bird of a man, Quast solid and booming….

n fact, comedy throughout the play is well done. Even without an extremely supportive first-night audience, there is no resisting the humour in this production. But it could perhaps have touched more on those difficult questions about the futility of human existence, the desire to create meaning in our lives, friendship and suffering, that should make this play a more difficult watch.”

CJ: While the overemphasis on humor has marred some Godots I’ve seen, no other critic so far has leveled this charge against STC’s production… in fact, some have emphasized its stark, bleaker aspects. The play rather notably HAS no answers about “difficult questions about the futility of human existence” and one could argue that its answers to the extent they exist are presented in the way the play ends (which I won’t spoil here, though it’s one of the more famous endings of 20th century literature.) I can’t imagine Andrew Upton altering Beckett’s final stage direction, or any of these actors being too hammy. Rehearsal photos alone belie Frost’s notion that the actors were “too comfortable” embodying these characters (of course, one says this understanding Weaving and Roxburgh have decades of stage experience, so they’re never going to seem uncomfortable performing).  Didi and Gogo have been companions for 50 years, so they HAVE to have a kind of short-hand of communication and gesture.  Here are some contrasting views:

Lloyd Bradford Syke, The Daily Review/ : “When the production’s two leads are Hugo Weaving and Richard Roxburgh, one suspects [director Andrew] Upton mightn’t have had to do too much beyond telling them where to stand….

First of all, it’s funny, but Beckett’s genius here transcends the work’s humour.  While keeping a momentum of gentle amusement throughout, there is an ever-present undercurrent of deeply affecting sadness and there’s not a better example than in the first minutes. Gogo wants change, or he wants out. He can no longer bear the boots he’s wearing, yet he must. They’re his. This is his lot….

Upton and his cast have locked-on to the essence of the play. Roxburgh’s comic timing and sensibility is spot on and as the tired, glass-half-empty member of the duo, he calibrates his performance incisively. Both he and Weaving are so comfortable in front of a large audience they’re able to focus absolutely on the finer points of their respective performances, down to the meter of their speech and their pauses. Weaving is masterful: we see the cogs of Didi’s mind turning, mustering the hint of inspiration both he and Gogo need to go on just one more day. It’s the only way in which their lives can be measured. And so they must wait. And it’s as well they wait for a fictional saviour like Godot….

Mullins is excellent as the mostly wordless minion, but it’s Quast that truly fills every inch of his larger-than-life character, beaming and booming Pozzo’s overbearing personality such that it expands, balloon-like, and almost explodes, to fill the hearts and minds of an appreciative audience. It may well be the crowning performance of Quast’s career and the fact that he’s positively luminous, even in this esteemed company, is a guide to just how good he is….Upton, STC and this cast have really got Godot. It has been well worth the wait.”

Luke Mullins as Lucky (center) with Hugo Weaving, Richard Roxburgh

Chris Hook, The Daily Telegraph: “Meaning, in Godot, is hotly contested, the subject of myriad debates and discourses (a Christian reading is the most obvious but Beckett denied this)….

Vladimir and Estragon’s fruitless wait for a man called Godot is everything and nothing, the pointlessness of our existence at its heart. But this is, after all, a comedy and Weaving and Roxburgh acquit themselves expertly, as they banter and clown about while milling around a dead tree, passing time as they wait….

Director Andrew Upton’s take makes for a remarkable production of a 20th-century masterpiece. It’s perfectly paced and Weaving and Roxburgh are at their finest, bring to bear all of their considerable abilities on the roles….An unrecognisable [Philip] Quast and [Luke] Mullins almost run away with the whole thing, Quast’s towering stature and magnificent presence the sheer embodiment of Pozzo.”

Anthony Ulhmann, The Conversation: “The major participants to the play all make their own particular contributions to a conception that seems to follow from one thing: Upton indicates in his notes to the program his interest in theatre history and positions Beckett as “post-naturalist”…Any production of any play is an interpretation and what makes this valid or otherwise is not any academic or theoretical argument but whether or not the production itself stands up. In order to do this the interpretation has to be coherent and plausible within the work…. Upton’s production, then, is ambitious. It is also largely successful….

The first act on the opening night was a triumph: Hugo Weaving’s Vladimir in particular shines as a creature of the air, someone who is – and this is rarely noticed in other productions – capable of rising above almost anything… In response to him, Roxburgh’s Estragon creates a creature of the ground, the downbeat to Weaving’s up… Yet in doing this, rather than changing Godot to turn it into a naturalist play, Upton is aware that what needs to happen is an exchange: naturalism is brought into dialogue with the anti-naturalist….

Overstatement or exaggeration leads to the humour and pathos: this is brilliantly brought out by Philip Quast (Pozzo) and Luke Mullins (Lucky). Upton chooses to make both Lucky and Estragon weep out loud, melodramatically, when this is often understated. Again, here, his decisions are bold, and I think they succeed…

Upton chooses to work with a kind of comic melodrama because this offers continuity with a naturalist tradition. It might break with received or authorised interpretations but an extremely interesting coherence emerges. Upton, in effect, has done something very hard. He has offered new light on a play we thought was getting old. Or perhaps it is just that he has made it real for his audience….

It is already clear that this Australian cast is equal to any that might be assembled anywhere. Once the timing is brought right Upton’s production will stand tall among recent interpretations of the play.”

[CJ: This is the lengthiest and most academic review so far of STC’s production, with a lot of interesting background information on the history of the play. Well worth a look.]

Leigh Livingstone: “Audiences expect high-calibre productions from this theatrical institution and even when casting stars like Hugo Weaving and Richard Roxburgh – two powerhouses of the Australian entertainment industry – raises the anticipation through the roof, Waiting for Godot delivers the goods….

Subtle character nuances, expressions and movements leave no traces of Weaving ‘the actor’ and thus cements his reputation as a leader within the industry…    Roxburgh is grumpy yet charming as Estragon and the two actors complement each other perfectly in a co-dependant relationship that never misses a beat even during lengthy pauses…

Waiting for Godot has a reputation as an elusive masterpiece. It is full of complex philosophies intended for interpretation by the audience at will, and STC’s production is simply superb.”

I’ll have what they’re having 😉

Ian Dickson, Australian Book Review: “At the end of the first act, it seemed that we were in for an evening of Beckett lite. In his review of the original London production, Kenneth Tynan wrote: ‘Waiting for Godot frankly jettisons everything by which we recognize theatre … A play, it asserts and proves, is basically a means of spending two hours in the dark without being bored.’ It seemed that the director and cast had taken this to heart. Aided and abetted by an audience primed for comedy and seemingly willing to laugh at everything, the admittedly very funny act sped by giving short shrift to the shafts of pain and despair that puncture the humour. By the second and darker act, the cast had obviously got the measure of the audience and had complete control of the house. The bleaker moments came through full force, and the ending was, as it should be, deeply moving…

With his fob watch and picnic hamper, there is something Edwardian about Pozzo, Beckett’s answer to Kenneth Grahame’s Mr Toad perhaps, if one could imagine Mr Toad riven by existential despair. Actors always play Pozzo at full bore, and Philip Quast’s operatic performance is no exception to the rule… As his battered and abused servant Lucky, Luke Mullins is nothing short of magnificent…

In the hands of Hugo Weaving and Richard Roxburgh, Vladimir and Estragon come over as a cross between Stiffy and Mo and Edward Albee’s George and Martha. Resenting their interdependence but terrified of loneliness, they bicker and make up and attempt to find ways to pass the long daylight hours… Weaving’s Vladimir is the more optimistic of the two. He still has some hope that things will get better and that Godot will arrive, but his glazed smile and anxious eyes betray the immense effort needed to remain positive, and his final outburst when the boy tells him that once again Godot will not come is shattering… Roxburgh is an unusually active Estragon. Despite his sore feet, he buzzes around the stage like a fly trapped in a bottle. Less bright than Vladimir but more realistic, he sees his situation as hopeless. And Roxburgh brilliantly shifts gears from comedy to despair and back again.

This is already a splendid production. I have a feeling that after it has run in a bit more it will be a magnificent one.”

Deborah Jones: “SYDNEY Theatre Company’s Waiting for Godot offers, above all, the grace of tenderness and the gift of generosity. There are few qualities more touching in any circumstances; in Godot they temper and illuminate one of the harshest and most unforgiving dramas of the 20th century. Life is envisioned as a cruel paradox. We can have hopes for the future but can possess no knowledge of it. This is for the best, of course. If we had the power of foresight all hope may well be extinguished and with it the desire to go on. No matter how unendurable the present is, it will be endured. Memory – the only way in which we can know ourselves – may possibly sustain us, but is deeply unreliable….

This production, directed by Andrew Upton with Anna Lengyel as co-director, takes as read the great abyss that lies ahead and places its faith in the many small gestures of connection – touches, glances, interactions, diversions – that bind one person to another in the here and now. Being in extremis is one thing. To face it alone would be the greatest horror…

Upton doesn’t go soft on the play… He and an unimprovable group of actors delve into the core of the matter and find a persistent spark of humanity in the midst of desolation….

Hugo Weaving’s Vladimir and Richard Roxburgh’s Estragon are in a constant, restless state of anxiety, that much is clear. Vladimir just manages to hide it a little better. He is the one with carrots and radishes about his person when Estragon complains of hunger. He is the one insistent on meeting the obligation to Godot as a matter of honour. His speech is carefully chosen for rhythm and ever so slightly heightened effect. ‘For the moment he is inert,’ Vladimir says of the prone Lucky. Weaving’s locution is resonant and precise but his tense jaw, mobile mouth and wandering tongue give the lie to his apparent command of the situation….

Estragon is the more obviously untethered and in need of protection, although there is much sweetness in his expression and his eagerness to please. Roxburgh has a rare gift for being simultaneously heartbreaking and funny (his Vanya in 2010 was superb) and you could pick scores of examples from Godot….

Despite Godot’s extreme artifice Weaving and Roxburgh have a lightness of touch that borders on naturalism. This makes for a fascinatingly multi-layered production in which the poetry of the play is honoured but can sound conversational and the overt theatricality is absorbed seamlessly into an easy flow of banter and time-filling. The routine in the second act in which Vladimir and Estragon swap hats, for instance, has nothing of the presentational music-hall performance style so often seen and becomes something much less contrived. The easy rapport between the two men (as actors and characters) trumps party tricks. There are funny sad bits and sad funny ones, just as in life.”

[CJ: Another exceedingly well-written review, worth reading in full. As added incentive, the post includes high-res versions of several of Lisa Tomasetti’s great production photos.]

Since the play’s run has just begun, there will likely be more to come. I’m thrilled the reaction so far has been this positive. A play with this pedigree and elusiveness [down to the persistent argument over whether it’s actually a comedy or tragedy] will obviously elicit different responses based on audience expectation and interpretation, particularly among those who’ve seen many versions. I’ve found my own response to the play has evolved over the years as well. I used to think it was utterly depressing (if bleakly poetic) but now I think it’s a comedy with bittersweet, sad moments. Neither comedy nor tragedy should be overemphasized. Stewart and McKellen got the mix just right, and it sounds as though Weaving and Roxburgh have as well. (The fact that so many have noted Vladimir’s final interaction with The Boy as a particularly poignant moment is a good indicator.)

UPDATE: Another interesting new review, which was posted alongside a full set of Lisa Tomasetti’s play photos, including some I hadn’t seen before:

Matthew Clayfield, Time Out Sydney:  “As statements on the human condition go, Waiting for Godot is pretty bleak stuff. Like most bleak statements on the human condition, however, it’s also a bit of a laugh riot. Stepping in for Hungarian director Tamás Ascher, who conceived of this production but was unable to travel to Australia to direct it, Andrew Upton handles the material with a light touch, never overstressing its heavier points….

As Vladimir and Estragon, Hugo Weaving and Richard Roxburgh could almost be out-of-work vaudevillians, their actions informed by a certain slapstick spirit even if they’re not necessarily running about bumping into another. Beckett described the play as a tragicomedy and one could perhaps argue that Upton has dulled a good deal of the “tragi” by playing up the “comedy”. But the angst and despair are still there, if you’re looking for them, smuggled through in small, termitic details…

Disappearing behind a scruffy beard and several layers of dirt, Weaving’s Vladimir is a particularly well-drawn example of this, a would-be fop and wannabe optimist whose manifold tics and tremors—he’s constantly grinding his teeth and, more off-puttingly, involuntarily sticking his tongue out, licking his lips and moistening everything—are constantly betraying his internal crises…

That there is a good deal of pleasure to be taken from Weaving and Roxburgh’s interactions together almost goes without saying. These are two of our greatest actors and they’re at the top of their game. What is perhaps more surprising is the fact that they are very nearly upstaged by Philip Quast’s Pozzo and Luke Mullins’s Lucky. Looking like an emaciated albino doberman, and every bit as likely to bite, Mullins, in particular, is doing some career-best work here.”

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