Owing to the Edinburgh International Festival in recent years I'd already discovered, contrary to what I'd expected, that I enjoy Beckett on stage. It was primarily for that reason that I booked to see Waiting for Godot for the first time in this run of performances by the Sydney Theatre Company at the Barbican. I hoped it would be good, I did not anticipate such a hilarious, moving and quite simply totally compelling evening.
Having now actually seen it on stage what seems to be the standard joke about it – that nothing happens, twice – seems the more puzzling. To my mind at least there's a great deal going on. The basic plot (as most readers will probably know) involves Vladimir and Estragon waiting through two days for Godot who, needless to say, never arrives. On both days some of the time spent waiting is occupied by the passing through the possible meeting place of Pozzo and Lucky. The premise itself (of waiting for Godot) is surely one of the finest running gags in the history of theatre – the more so as it becomes laced with an ever increasing, at times almost unhinged, desperation. And behind it, there's an extraordinary richness of ideas – about how difficult it is to live as an individual, the equally potentially ghastly problem of and yet indispensible need for companionship, the yearning for something beyond the world we see in front of us. At the same time, the play is a superb send up of the whole ludicrous idea of putting plays on stage in the first place. That it manages to do this so sharply, while being equally capable of chilling the viewer is testimony to a vital contrast to the many more recent practitioners who've attempted similar sending up. Beckett's mockery, unlike many would be successors, is never dismissive or contemptuous of the form. He makes us laugh at ourselves as viewers and then, suddenly, he reminds us precisely why we're still there.
Much of the evening is gloriously funny (I don't think I've laughed so much at a performance since the National's One Man Two Governors). The opening sequence of Act Two when first Vladimir alone and then united with Estragon move through an increasingly desperate cycle of activities playing on the problem of how 1-2 people can keep action on stage going (from singing to insulting each other) is magnificent. The culminating cry of relief (when Pozzo and Lucky at last reappear) – thank god, reinforcements! - is equally spot on. There are other genius touches of this elsewhere from the equally hilarious (Estragon acting as an audience member and giving a review akin to what genuine audience members might give) to the chilling as we're made complicit in listening to the voices of the dead – one of a number of moments in this performance which stops everything dead and forces us, behind the jokes, to ask ourselves exactly where we might be.
It is that capacity to stop the laughter dead, which makes this such a powerful evening. Although the play in some ways seems to tell us so little about these people, somehow it tells enough. A lot of this comes from the relationship between Vladimir and Estragon and what it says about the sometimes uncomfortable ways in which we can be bound to each other. But there is equally telling material in the different representation of the Pozzo-Lucy relationship in the two acts, and in how they interact with the others. The reference to Pozzo, when collapsed apparently helpless on the floor, as standing for all of humanity, is both funny, and horribly true.
The four principals – Richard Roxburgh (Estragon), Hugo Weaving (Vladimir), Philip Quast (Pozzo) and Luke Mullins (Lucky) – give superb performances both individually and collectively. One other point I haven't yet mentioned is the striking physicality of much of the evening – visible for example in Weaving's use of his fingers and arms, Roxburgh of all his limbs, Mullins of his whole body. The spare setting is, of course, part of the point. In a less complete evening it could pall, but this performance succeeded in making at least this viewer doubt whether what was in front of him was all. The programme note, incidentally, explains that Andrew Upton had to step in as director at a late stage - the performance gives no hint of any such behind the scenes challenges.
This is an outstanding performance – the only show of comparable quality so far this year has been the National's Man and Superman. Astonishingly there were still tickets unsold in the stalls last night. This is unmissable – get your tickets now.