On Saturday night, Andrew Upton’s production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot opened at the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) – without provoking the executors of the Irish playwright’s estate to anger.
That was not the case in January 2003, at the opening night of Neil Armfield’s production of Waiting for Godot at Sydney’s Belvoir St Theatre.
Immediately before that performance in 2003, I prodded Samuel Beckett’s literary executor and nephew Edward Beckett awake – he had only just arrived from London that morning – as he nodded outside the theatre, and escorted him in.
At interval he was incandescent with rage and demanded that I bring the director to see him.
How tough are the Beckett police?
A few days later the news that the Beckett Estate was threatening to revoke the rights of the production (something that would have bankrupted Belvoir Street) was front-page news.
Edward Beckett’s role in this has largely been misunderstood: he believed Belvoir Street had signed a contract explicitly indicating that no music was to be added to the production. He then assumed, since he was guest of honour, that he was being deliberately provoked in being asked to attend a performance that blatantly ignored a signed contract.
As it turned out, Belvoir Street was equally bemused: the contract the company had signed said nothing about music and did not forbid its use. There were two contracts circulating in different territories: Edward Beckett had in mind one that was in force in Europe – and Belvoir Street had signed another that was in force in other territories.
Nonetheless a belief that the Beckett Estate strongly polices performances of Beckett’s plays was strengthened in Australia and a good deal of debate circulated as to who should have what rights over the nature of particular performances.
In fact, with Waiting for Godot, first performed in 1953, a good deal of license remains to directors, actors, set, lighting and sound designers – and it is they and they alone who can make a production come to life for an audience.
The Beckett Estate stipulates that the script be followed and includes a few other directives. This can be discouraging to those who wish to completely remake or adapt works, as is often now done with theatre classics. With Godot, however, the stage directions are open to interpretation in many places.
In addition, little real policing takes place, so that productions that have made major changes – such as Susan Sontag’s famous production staged in war-torn Sarajevo that included multiple Vladimirs and Estragons on stage at the same time – have taken place and remained unchallenged.
Waiting for a director
Andrew Upton’s STC production of Waiting for Godot clearly has the ambition of bringing the play to life now.
The production was originally supposed to be directed by the celebrated Hungarian director Tamás Ascher, who had worked with the STC and actors Hugo Weaving and Richard Roxburgh, who play the leads in Godot, on a 2010 production of Anton Checkov’s Uncle Vanya.
Ascher was a late withdrawal for medical reasons, however, and the difficult task was given to STC artistic director Andrew Upton to take over the production and make it his own.
Ascher had already made a major mark having overseen and conceptualised Zsolt Khell’s set design. This set design differs from other productions in that, to quote from the program, it offers “a theatre within a theatre: a broken false proscenium, the scarred remnants of a black wall like the Sydney Theatre’s”.
This choice leads to another, which might be Ascher’s or Upton’s: the moon does not rise as an image on set; rather, the lighting offers us moonlight.
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.
The agent of exchange is already in the play: overstatement.
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.
Questions that are not answered
You could also talk about things being both over- and under-determined in the play, because meaning and what things mean, and situations and how they feel, are emphasised again and again, but purely as questions. Questions that are not answered.
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.
There are things that will no doubt improve from the opening night.
The second act did not succeed as brilliantly as the first, partly because there is more fodder for melodrama in the first. The second act – and I mean the text itself as much as the production – seems formal and academic in response, though again, for students of the play, the contrast is instructive.
The thing that held it back slightly on the night was a simple loss of rhythm or timing by the cast. Everyone seemed to lose the link between the pauses and dialogue, just a little, but enough to cause the flow to falter. As the actors move forward this problem will surely dissolve into the flow that they conveyed in the first act.
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.
Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, directed by Andrew Upton, with Hugo Weaving, Richard Roxburgh, Luke Mullins, Philip Quast and Otis Pavlovic/Rory Potter. At the Sydney Theatre Company until December 21.
Anthony Uhlmann has received funding from the Australian Research Council in the past for projects on Samuel Beckett and literary modernism and will commence a new ARC funded project on J.M. Coetzee in 2014. He is the current President of the Australian University Heads of English group.
This article was originally published at The Conversation.
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