Two blokes walked on to a stage

Max Cullen and John Gaden.
Max Cullen and John Gaden.
Geoffrey Rush and Mel Gibson.
Geoffrey Rush and Mel Gibson.
Hugo Weaving and Richard Roxburgh in rehearsal for the production of Waiting for Godot.
Hugo Weaving and Richard Roxburgh in rehearsal for the production of Waiting for Godot. Picture: Lisa Tomasetti
Ian McKellen and Roger Rees.
Ian McKellen and Roger Rees.
"At the time when Godot was first done, it liberated something for anybody writing plays ... There we all were, busting a gut with great monologues and pyrotechnics, and this extraordinary genius just put this play together with enormous refinement, and then with two completely unprecedented and uncategorisable bursts of architecture in the middle - terrible metaphor - and there it was, theatre." - Playwright Tom Stoppard.

"A really remarkable piece of twaddle." - Critic and columnist Bernard Levin.

IN a cool fishbowl of a room overlooking a smoky harbour, Andrew Upton and Richard Roxburgh sit in identical postures of weariness at a tiny table. This morning's rehearsals for the Sydney Theatre Company's new production of Samuel Beckett's 1953 absurdist classic Waiting for Godot have left them in a "fugue" state, says a drained Roxburgh, who apologises for his distracted air as he sneaks a peek at the sinister orange sky outside and covertly checks his phone for news of his sister's house in the bushfire-ravaged Blue Mountains.

In drifts Hugo Weaving, a big, sweaty apparition with his wild, speckled yellow beard and shaggy mane of damp hair. It's evidently been hard work tilling the thin, hard soil that is Beckett's slim masterpiece: Weaving, like the other two, looks as if he's been lumping sacks of potatoes all morning. "It's been exhausting, yes," he booms gravely as he sits down to order lunch. "A hard day, but exciting."

Written by Irish-born playwright Beckett in four short months in Paris, Waiting for Godot tells the tale of two tramps who wait patiently under a skeletal tree for a salvation that never comes. It's famously been described as a tale "in which nothing happens, twice".

However there's been plenty of offstage colour and movement surrounding this Sydney production following the last-minute withdrawal of Hungarian director Tamas Ascher due to the recurrence of an old injury. How wonderfully Beckettian, says Weaving with a grin as he pinches a hot chip off Upton's plate. "Here were are, a cast rehearsing and waiting patiently for two weeks for a director who - we finally realise on Thursday - ain't coming."

STC artistic director Upton has stepped into the breach, working with Ascher's associate Anna Lengyel and Ascher himself via phone to realise the director's vision for this Godot. It's a "more urban than country" production, with ecological overtones: think a blasted, scorched landscape featuring a graveyard of fallen saplings and a set resembling a defunct theatre.

Things are going as well as can be expected but Ascher's absence is an undeniable setback. A co-founder and director of the esteemed Katona Jozsef Theatre in Budapest, Ascher is not just one of the foremost Chekhov interpreters of our time (his 2010 Uncle Vanya for the STC featured a memorable pairing of Roxburgh as the broken Vanya and Weaving as the dynamic Dr Astrov) but a notable stager of absurdist playwrights: Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Harold Pinter.

Ascher, who first staged Godot in regional Hungary in 1975, apparently hit on the idea of casting Roxburgh and Weaving as Beckett's "tatterdemalion stoics" Didi and Gogo (Philip Quast will play the portly hypomaniac Pozzo opposite Luke Mullins as his demented slave Lucky) during that STC Uncle Vanya.

The director, Weaving recalls, detected a "Beckettian" atmosphere developing between the two actors in "a particular scene in the fourth act when the two of us were sitting on a table with our legs dangling".

"Yelena [played by Cate Blanchett] had left for the last time, there's nothing more for either of them, he ... " - he points to Roxburgh - "feels like killing himself and Astrov is basically saying, 'look, I feel the same way, but we've got to keep going'.

"And Tamas stopped the rehearsal and he said, 'You two must play Vladimir and Estragon one day'. And then Andrew came up to me and said, 'I have this great idea. We should get Tamas to do Godot with both of you'."

Ascher cast Weaving as the restless, seemingly more dominant Vladimir and Roxburgh as the amnesiac, inarticulate Estragon on the back of what he saw as a "certain correlation" with their performances as Vanya and Astrov respectively, Roxburgh says.

In the flesh, each seems a good match for his tramp. Weaving is more voluble and extrovert, with big gestures and an "affable opacity", as an observer once noted. Roxburgh is politely reserved by contrast, sparing of words and smiles, his fine-boned, feline face masked by dark glasses for much of our interview.

As it turns out, it is Roxburgh who is the more candid of the two as we talk. He says bluntly at one point that he felt like "utter shit" at yesterday's rehearsals, infected by fears for his sister as well as the play's grim, deep questions. "I'm not going to pretend I'm not finding it incredibly, incredibly difficult," he says. Perhaps this is not so surprising: Roxburgh has form when it comes to revealing the vulnerable edges of performance anxiety. He's talked in the past about battling demons through acting, and has described his mesmerising 1994 turn as Hamlet at Sydney's Belvoir St Theatre as a "brutal" and "terrifying" experience.

Although Weaving takes the verbal lead for most part, there's a palpable mutual respect and camaraderie, a sly humour and familiarity built on a shared history of mutual friends, agents, and theatre and TV productions. They discuss next year's STC projects: Macbeth for Weaving ("nightmarish, fast-moving, thrilling, impossibly difficult") and a "big, romantic, heartbreakingly beautiful" Cyrano de Bergerac for Roxburgh, who is pleased his two young sons can come and see it. They swap family stories and holiday plans (as an envious Roxburgh listens, Weaving gleefully reveals plans for a decadent "reward" month in Sicily next May), anecdotes about people they know and things they've been in together. A critic reviewing Uncle Vanya described them as "contrastive, but compatible"; Ascher, similarly, Upton says, regarded them as akin to a pair of complementary musical instruments: "different instruments, certainly, but very closely tuned to each other".

WRITING his second play in longhand in French in a composition book in late 1948 and early 1949, Beckett claimed Godot was a way of getting back his sanity and escaping from the "awful prose" he was writing. His friend Edna O'Brien said he saw the first glimmering outline of what's been described as the greatest theatrical work of the 20th century in the images of a bare tree, a moon, and two figures he had seen at an exhibition of German artist Caspar David Friedrich's work in Berlin.

On February 17, 1952, an abridged version of the play was broadcast on French radio, followed by the debut of a ramshackle theatrical production, En Attendant Godot, on January 5, 1953, in a near-empty, 75-seat Theatre de Babylone in Montparnasse, Paris.

Audiences were bewildered but French dramatist Jean Anouilh declared it a "masterpiece that will cause despair for men in general and for playwrights in particular". Its London debut in 1955 (under the direction of a young Peter Hall) was greeted with hostile jeers and mass walkouts, but it was eventually rescued by critical heavyweights Kenneth Tynan and Harold Hobson, whose belated approbation set in train a kind of feverish Godotmania through London, and then the world.

Little did the gaunt, publicity-shy Beckett realise his baffling, much derided piece of anti-theatre (John Gielgud initially dismissed it as "a load of old rubbish", while Alec Guinness and Ralph Richardson would spend a lifetime berating themselves for turning it down) would "damn" him to enduring literary fame, entering our lexicon, popular culture and theatrical canon (it was voted the 20th century's most significant play), and changing modern theatre, as The New York Times' front-page Beckett obituary declared in 1989.

Beckett scholar Ruby Cohn wrote that "after Godot, plots could be minimal; exposition, expendable; characters, contradictory; settings, unlocalised, and dialogue, unpredictable. Blatant farce could jostle tragedy."

It's a big, almost sacred theatrical space to step into, and on this hot bushfire-struck morning, all three men appear sapped by its demands. Rehearsals so far have been a tough workout physically, intellectually and technically. They've been tussling and play-fighting, trying out visual gags and pratfalls as they tap into the highly physical, Laurel and Hardy quality of the play (it helps if you have a clowning background, it is said: witness the masterful performance by Bert Lahr - the original Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz - in the 1956 Broadway production of Godot).

Roxburgh holds up two slim hands and mimes a juggling action: how do you maintain Godot's slippery balance between comedy and tragedy, light and dark? How do you do justice to Beckett's spare, spiky language, mastering not just the words, but those equally important Beckettian pauses and silences and "dot dot dots", as Weaving puts it, alongside the play's balletic physical rituals: the endless walks, the putting on and off of hats and boots?

Who are these tramps? Clowns? Ghosts? Real men? What, in the end, is Godot about: the search for God? An allegory of the Cold War? An existential fable? Critic Normand Berlin said: "Godot, like Hamlet before it, is a play in the interrogative mood. Questions make up one quarter of the play, half of which remain unanswered."

Beckett famously hated exegesis so it's up to actors and directors to fill in the blanks. Weaving says dryly: "It's anything you want it to be, really. I've always wanted to do it because it's such a difficult-to-fathom piece."

Roxburgh adds soberly: "The only thing I've ever done that is similarly confoundingly open to conjecture and confusion potentially, is doing Pinter."

He's in good company. Even its most venerable interpreters regard Godot's fogs and opacities with a healthy fear. Speaking in the lead-up to the famous 2009 West End production directed by Sean Mathias, Ian McKellen described it as "daunting" and "almost impenetrable on the page", while Patrick Stewart said it was the most difficult thing he'd ever tackled apart from Pinter's The Caretaker on Broadway.

Roxburgh digests this silently and then raises a pained blond eyebrow. Weaving leans forward and taps the table. "Yes, McKellen did say that, but I think he also said it changed his life." He pauses. "Or maybe it would change your life." He frowns, chewing thoughtfully.

More than most plays, Godot rises or falls on the strength of the chemistry between the two leading men. Audiences have seen some of the greatest male tag teams of the stage in action as Beckett's forsaken tramps, from Robin Williams and Steve Martin in Mike Nichols's 1988 blockbuster, to McKellen and Stewart in the West End (they're reprising the role at New York's Cort Theatre this month). It helps if there's a strong personal bond; in Beckett's famous Schiller Theatre production in 1975, the two leads, who had known each other for decades, would swap jokes offstage, tease and taunt each other in little psychological games, and throw ping-pong balls at each other ( "What a great idea," says Weaving).

Upton says Weaving and Roxburgh have that chemistry, fed by their work together on Uncle Vanya three years running. Weaving agrees: "There's a wonderful sense of 'here we are all again'. Stuff had been brought back into Godot from our lives, and even without Tamas being here, there's a sense of progression."

The pair's paths first crossed years ago in Canberra when Roxburgh, an "indolent, slothful and drunken" economics student, as he's described himself, watched spellbound as Weaving masterfully played Sir Toby Belch in a third-year National Institute of Dramatic Art production of Twelfth Night directed by John Clark in 1981. Roxburgh smiles at the memory: "Hugo was the reason I became an actor, because I suppose I'd always thought of the idea of acting as a hobby, but there was something in the way he attacked that role where I just thought, wow."

Weaving grins slyly, stroking imaginary sideburns. "It was my mutton chops, wasn't it?" Roxburgh nods. "Yes. And your farts. I remember there was a carefully, deftly placed fart. I thought it was miraculous." They grin like naughty schoolboys.

Roxburgh continues: "I thought if you could possibly have that much manifest joy in whatever your occupation was, why not do it? It really changed my path. I had some odd fellow feeling, even though we were complete strangers to each other."

Their paths crossed again years later. Weaving says: "I very clearly remember [talent agent] Bill Shanahan saying, 'There's this great guy, third-year NIDA, he's coming to Shanahan's.' " They first worked together in the Burning House Theatre Company's lauded debut production in January 1994 of Tim Winton's quirky rite-of-passage novel That Eye, The Sky, adapted for the stage by Justin Monjo and Roxburgh, who directed the work. It opened on a stifling night in an old sandstone church in Darlinghurst for the Sydney Festival before a national tour.

Weaving played Henry Warburton - a glass-eyed, "Bible-touting enigma in a tattered coat" - in an ensemble cast of eight spearheaded by David Wenham. He looks at Roxburgh and smiles fondly: "That was a wonderful group-devised project, but it was very much yours, Rox."

After some head-scratching, they agree they next worked together when Weaving starred, improbably, as a cannibalistic economics professor in the 2010 debut episode of the successful ABC TV series Rake that Roxburgh co-created and stars in as the louche, self-destructive barrister Cleaver Greene (a US version is about to air, and Roxburgh has just finished filming the third season: "It's taken on a life of its own.")

But it was in Uncle Vanya that critics noticed the flowering of a great dynamic. They "constitute the production's greatest strength ... each has a particular energy, emotional and physical - Roxburgh's fascinatingly lateral, Weaving's forthright", a critic from RealTime Arts wrote. Blanchett told New York's Gotham magazine it was a rare but fascinating thing to have "two heroes, men who could have walked the same path but made slightly different choices and somehow ended up in the same place".

Weaving shakes his shaggy head and proclaims himself mystified by what this bond is. "I love watching Rox in everything he does and really enjoy being with him but beyond that I don't know what it is." Roxburgh smiles, replying: "I think undoubtedly we have a really great chemistry." Upton leaps in: "I think it's a functional thing. What's rare about it is you have two leading men without big egos, who can occupy the same paddock, and so that gives you the chance to do things with a V8 engine rather than a V4 engine. I know that's a terrible mix of metaphors but that's what the rehearsal room feels like.

"They're true leading men, in the sense of leading a company, leading a role, leading an audience into a play."

Roxburgh and Weaving grin quizzically at each other; it's nice, they say, to feel close enough as actors to admit vulnerabilities. "It's good we can talk like that because, for me, doing this play is a journey through doubt," Roxburgh says. "These deep, dark questions and meditations of what this play is about, it's very amorphous.

"You know it's somehow a meditation through the grey light of the end of the Second World War, so there's something about that apocalyptic thing there, and to me some of that darker stuff does filter through to you.

"So yesterday, some of the sheer shit and horror of that got to me."

Weaving nods sympathetically. "Yes, we did get dragged down a bit yesterday, didn't we?"

Talk turns to the notoriously proscriptive Beckett estate (asked what creative leeway he has in the staging, Upton replies, "None") and exactly why this slim, puzzling 1953 tale continues to resonate across the world.

Beckett's official biographer James Knowlson suggested the answer "lies in its ambiguities"; it is a tabula rasa, open to any interpretation.

Upton says: "I think it was so far ahead of its time that in a funny way we're still catching up to it now."

Then there's its curious timelessness and placelessness. Godot has been staged by all-black casts in post-apartheid South Africa, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in war-torn Sarajevo, and in prisons across the world. South African director Athol Fugard told his actors that "Vladimir and Estragon ... were at Sharpeville or were the first in at Auschwitz. Choose your horror. They know all about it."

It's a play that definitely comes into its own in hard times, agrees Weaving. Written against the background of Vichy France and its horrors, there's "the sense of a holocaust, and what we have done as a civilisation to this world, where we now are, where do we go from here, what is the point of anything now ... all these questions, they're always going to be there, forever and a day".

Roxburgh nods. "And I think now, if you want to dwell on matters of zeitgeist, with the talk of climate change, the sense that people are battening down the hatches in America and the survivalist mentality, there's a sense that this idea of two people standing in a blasted landscape surrounded by fallen saplings is not that far-fetched."

He gestures at the shimmering, smoky orange sky outside: "When you think of this image of the blasted, scorched tree, there's definitely something post-apocalyptic there. We don't know what it is, but it's there."

Waiting for Godot is at the Sydney Theatre from November 12 to December 21.



1978. Walter Asmus's staging at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, with Sam Waterston as Vladimir and Austin Pendleton as Estragon.

1988. Mike Nichols's hit production at New York's Lincoln Centre, with Robin Williams as Estragon, Steve Martin as Vladimir, F. Murray Abraham as Pozzo and Bill Irwin as Lucky.

1991. Queen's Theatre, London's West End. Rik Mayall as Vladimir and Adrian Edmondson as Estragon in the first West End production since the play's British premiere in 1955.

2009. Theatre Royal Haymarket, West End. A landmark production directed by Sean Mathias, with Ian McKellen as Estragon, Patrick Stewart as Vladimir and Simon Callow as Pozzo. From 2010, it toured internationally with Roger Rees replacing Stewart. It opened at the Sydney Opera House and Melbourne's Comedy Theatre, where McKellen was mistaken for a beggar while taking a break outside the theatre. He and Stewart will reprise the roles in a revival at Broadway's Cort Theatre, with Mathias directing, from November.

2009. Broadway. A Tony Award-nominated revival with Nathan Lane as Estragon and Bill Irwin as Vladimir.

June 2013. A new production at the Stratford Festival, directed by Jennifer Tarver, with Brian Dennehy as Pozzo, Stephen Ouimette as Estragon and Tom Rooney as Vladimir.


1957. The Arrow Theatre in Melbourne. Barry Humphries was Estragon opposite Peter O'Shaughnessy as Vladimir in the Australian premiere of the play, which O'Shaughnessy is credited for bringing here.

1979. Jane Street Theatre, Sydney. A young Mel Gibson (Estragon) starred opposite friend and flatmate Geoffrey Rush (Vladimir).

2003. Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney. Max Cullen played Estragon to John Gaden's Vladimir in Neil Armfield's controversial production.

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