The year ahead

And coming up in 2014 …

LAST year it was easy to point to the events in dance one thought would be unmissable (not so very many) and theatre (vast amounts). Mostly performances and productions delivered pretty much what one thought they would and moments of transcendence were few, but I guess they always are. Sydney Theatre Company’s Waiting for Godot, Griffin Theatre Company’s The Floating World and Nature Theatre of Oklahoma’s Life and Times (for the Melbourne Festival) are among the shining few, and opera offered tremendous occasions in Opera Australia’s Ring cycle and Pinchgut’s Giasone.

This year is a bit harder to read, particularly in theatre. There’s a handful of sure things – well, likely sure things, if that makes any sense at all – alongside some more intriguing propositions. Note that I’m only talking about Sydney theatre because that’s where I see most in this art form. Otherwise I get around a bit.

The events are in chronological order – which incidentally reveals a few unfortunate clashes for the dedicated dance fan – American Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake (Brisbane) and The Australian Ballet’s La Bayadere (Melbourne) open August 28; West Australian Ballet’s La fille mal gardee (Perth) and ABT’s Three Masterpieces triple bill opens September 5. Akram Khan’s DESH opens in Brisbane on September 6.

Dance:

Dido & Aeneas, Sasha Waltz & Guests. From January 16, Sydney Festival. Purcell, the Akademie fur Alte Musik, singers, dancers and a huge tank of water.

Patyegarang, Bangarra Dance Theatre. From June 13 in Sydney, then Canberra, Perth, Brisbane, Melbourne. Stephen Page’s new work on the meeting of minds between Lieutenant William Dawes and Patyegarang, a young indigenous woman, in colonial Sydney.

Romeo and Juliet, Queensland Ballet. From June 27, Brisbane. Kenneth MacMillan’s version (the best in my opinion) and guest stars Carlos Acosta, Tamara Rojo, Steven McRae and Daniel Gaudiello.

The Red Shoes, Expressions Dance Company, from July 18, Brisbane. Choreographer Natalie Weir tackles this much-loved, influential – albeit rather creepy – story of obsession in the ballet world. Intriguing.

American Ballet Theatre, from August 28, Brisbane only. First up is Kevin Mackenzie’s Swan Lake, but I’m more interested in the triple bill, which includes Twyla Tharp’s Bach Partita, which was recently revived by ABT after a 28-year hiatus. From September 5.

La Bayadere, The Australian Ballet, from August 28 in Melbourne, then Sydney. Choreographer Stanton Welch promises Bollywood colour and energy and a clearer, speedier version than usual. The beloved Kingdom of the Shades scene will, of course, be as expected.

La Fille mal gardee, West Australian Ballet, from September 5. This sweet and sunny ballet, updated to 1950s rural France, is seen in Perth and then will go to Queensland Ballet in 2015. QB’s Coppelia, choreographed by ballet master Greg Horsman (opening April 24 this year), goes to WAB next year in a sensible sharing of resources.

DESH, Akram Khan, from September 6, Brisbane Festival. I have longed to see this since its premiere and missed it at the Melbourne Festival in 2012. This is one occasion on which I won’t rail against the tendency of arts festivals to program work from a fairly small (admittedly stellar) group of dance artists.

Theatre:

Noises Off, Sydney Theatre Company, from February 17. I first saw Michael Frayn’s brilliant farce about 30 years ago and laughed like a loon. The memories are vivid; let’s hope they can be matched – surpassed even! – by this new production.

Ganesh versus the Third Reich, Back to Back Theatre, Carriageworks, from March 12. At long last Sydney gets to see this hugely admired work.

Hedda Gabler, Belvoir, from June 28. Ash Flanders will star. And yes, he’s a bloke who often performs in female guise. Flagrant nicking of a role a woman should have or a revelation? We shall see.

Macbeth, Sydney Theatre Company, from July 21. STC is giving over the auditorium of the Sydney Theatre to the actors and putting the audience on the stage. Hugo Weaving stars. Sounds promising, no?

Emerald City, Griffin Theatre Company, from October 17. David Williamson never really went away, despite the protestations of retirement, but he’s having quite the resurgence these days (Travelling North gets things moving at STC from January 9).

Opera and musical theatre:

Madama Butterfly, Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, Opera Australia, from March 21. No explanation required.

Strictly Ballroom the Musical, from March 25, Sydney. No explanation required.

The King and I, Opera Australia and John Frost, Brisbane, from April 15, then Melbourne and Sydney. I saw this lovely production when it premiered in 1991, directed by Christopher Renshaw, designed by Brian Thomson and with frocks by Roger Kirk that got their own applause. There’s no reason to think it won’t be a winner again, particularly with Lisa McCune rather than Hayley Mills as Anna.

Into the Woods, Victorian Opera, Melbourne, from July 19. Stephen Sondheim. Say no more.

The Riders, Victorian Opera, Melbourne, from September 23. New Australian opera from Iain Grandage with libretto by Alison Croggon, based on Tim Winton’s book.

2013: a retrospective

Here’s my take on the year’s high points. As many have noted before me, “best” is a useless word when applied to the cornucopia available in the arts. Here are the people and productions that most inspired me.

Showgirls usher the gods to Valhalla in Opera Australia's Das Rheingold. Photo: Jeff Busby

Showgirls usher the gods to Valhalla in Opera Australia’s Das Rheingold. Photo: Jeff Busby

“A SHORT show is a good show,” we all carol (me and my fellow critics) as we enter the auditorium for yet another 70- to 90-minute piece of theatre, but put a 10-hour marathon before us and we can’t get enough. So I have lists for big things, small things, individuals, a few words on musical theatre and a couple of miscellaneous thoughts.

It was a strong year, particularly in Sydney theatre, so it was hard to keep the lists tight. Please don’t take anything I say here as an indication of who has taken out honours in the Sydney Theatre Awards, of which I am but one judge on a panel of nine. Argument was fierce and the passions diverse, let me tell you! But here goes from me, in alphabetical order …

Big:

Angels in America, Parts One and Two, Belvoir, Sydney: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. This is the best play to have been written in English in my lifetime. Belvoir’s production was very fine.

Cinderella, The Australian Ballet, choreography by Alexei Ratmansky. The amazing Surrealist-inspired set looked waaaay better in Melbourne than in Sydney, but this version of the beloved fairytale to the bittersweet music of Prokofiev as choreographed by the world’s leading classicist is a keeper. (Also wonderful to see Ratmansky’s The Bright Stream with the Bolshoi in Brisbane mid-year – amazing how that company managed to block out the hideous backstage dramas that still dog it.)

Life and Times, Nature Theater of Oklahoma, Melbourne Festival: The ums, ahs and pauses of an ordinary life rendered first as a dippy musical, then as a drawing-room mystery. You had to be there (for 10 hours indeed). Sublime, transcendent.

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam: Scintillating Stravinsky Firebird suite and glorious Tchaikovsky fifth symphony. Magic.

The Ring, Opera Australia, Melbourne: not a flawless production, but one that felt right for this place and this time. Director Neil Armfield’s strength is finding the humanity in situations where it may seem to be missing in action and he did it here. Under last-minute mini-maestro Pietari Inkinen (only 33!!) the Melbourne Ring Orchestra put in a blinder. Bravi.

The Threepenny Opera, Berliner Ensemble, Perth International Arts Festival: Not a huge company, but a Robert Wilson production simply cannot be put into any category other than outsized. Stupendously performed, gorgeous to the eye, a knockout band in the pit, witty, sardonic … you get the idea.

Small:

The Floating World, Griffin, Sydney: A devastating production (Sam Strong directed) of John Romeril’s devastating play. I saw the last scene with tears pouring down my face. A rare occurrence.

Giasone, Pinchgut Opera: Apparently the most popular opera of 1649. Worked pretty damn well in 2013.

Independent theatre x 3: I have to mention this trio of splendid plays and productions thereof. I was thrilled to have been able to see Jez Butterworth’s brilliant Jerusalem in Sydney, and done so persuasively by the New Theatre. Workhorse Theatre Company’s The Motherf**ker with the Hat was hold-on-to-your-hats exhilarating, and is getting a re-run in 2014 at the new Eternity Playhouse. Hooray. And in Siren Theatre Company’s Penelope (by Enda Walsh), all sorts of trouble arises when Odysseus’s arrival back home is imminent. As with Workhorse, Siren did a superb job in the tiny confines of the theatre at TAP Gallery.

Owen Wingrave, Sydney Chamber Opera: This young, tiny outfit did Benjamin Britten proud in his centenary year. Really memorable music-making.

Sydney Chamber Opera's Owen Wingrave

Sydney Chamber Opera’s Owen Wingrave

The Rite of Spring, Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, Brisbane and Melbourne festivals: In the Rite of Spring centenary year, Michael Keegan-Dolan’s setting in a harsh, cold village was, not surprisingly, dark and threatening. His ending, however, stressed the renewal and healing that is to come. The score was played in Stravinsky’s four-hand version (on one piano); earlier in the year, in Sacre – The Rite of Spring (Raimund Hoghe for the Sydney Festival), we heard the score also played ravishingly by four hands, but on two pianos. Sacre was a difficult dance work for many; I admired it greatly.

School Dance, Windmill Theatre (seen at Sydney Theatre Company in association with the Sydney Festival): loved, loved, loved.

Jonathon Oxlade, Luke Smiles and Matthew Whittet in School Dance. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Jonathon Oxlade, Luke Smiles and Matthew Whittet in School Dance. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Super Discount, Back to Back Theatre: Deeply provocative on all sorts of levels. Can’t wait for Ganesh versus the Third Reich to come to Sydney – finally – next year.

Waiting for Godot, Sydney Theatre Company: Luke Mullins, Philip Quast, Richard Roxburgh and Hugo Weaving were an immaculate quartet of players in one of the year’s most heart-piercing productions.

Individuals (performers):

David Hallberg (American Ballet Theatre and Bolshoi Ballet principal): Luminous in Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella for The Australian Ballet in Sydney. Prince of princes.

Peter Kowitz: Les in The Floating World (see above).

Ewen Leslie: A huge year on the Sydney stage as a desolate Brick in Belvoir’s contentious Australian-accented Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Player in Sydney Theatre Company’s terrific Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and most powerfully – and impressively – as Hamlet for Belvoir, stepping in at short notice when original Dane Toby Schmitz was called overseas for filming duty. A rare change to compare and contrast in one of the roles by which men are judged. Closely.

Catherine McClements, Phedre, Bell Shakespeare: A scarifying performance in a production that was, in my opinion, sorely underrated. Not by me though.

Catherine McClements and Edmund Lembke-Hogan in Phedre. Photo: Rush

Catherine McClements and Edmund Lembke-Hogan in Phedre. Photo: Rush

Amber McMahon: Harper in Angels in America for Belvoir, various roles in School Dance for Windmill, special in everything.

Sharon Millerchip, Bombshells, Ensemble Theatre: Dazzling in Joanna Murray-Smith’s ode to the many faces of womanhood.

Tim Minchin: Lucky old us to see him not once but twice on stage, as a show-stealing Judas in the arena Jesus Christ Superstar and Rosencrantz in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Dead. Or is that Guildenstern? Don’t ask Claudius or Gertrude to help you out.

Luke Mullins: Prior Walter in Angels in America, the quiet centre of Kit Brookman’s Small and Tired, Lucky in Waiting for Godot. Fantastic in all of them. What a year!

Bojana Novakovic, The Blind Date Project, Sydney Festival: I adored this little improvised show. Wish I could have seen Novakovic with many more of her blind dates.

Myriam Ould-Braham, Paris Opera Ballet: Made her debut as Giselle in Sydney in February, making us here the envy of many a Paris balletomane. She was divine, as was fellow etoile Dorothee Gilbert. Both were partnered by the supremely elegant Mathieu Ganio. A joy to see the company here again.

Steve Rodgers: Rodgers has long been one of my favourite actors – so simpatico, even when taking on a difficult subject matter in Griffin’s Dreams in White. And especially in Gideon Obarzanek’s Dance Better at Parties for STC.

Individuals (behind the scenes):

Rafael Bonachela, artistic director, Sydney Dance Company: He’s here, he’s there, he’s everywhere. Bonachela sees everything and is bringing lots of strong artistic collaborations back for his astoundingly beautiful dancers.

Li Cunxin, artistic director, Queensland Ballet: He’s taken the company back to the classics and people have voted with their wallets. All shows have been sold out and all shows have been extended. I think Brisbane likes him.

Lyndon Terracini, Opera Australia: Got the Ring up. Respect.

Musical theatre:

It was an exceptionally patchy year for musical theatre in Sydney, although Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was really, really entertaining and super-well cast, and the arena version of Jesus Christ Superstar was a blast. The new consortium of music-theatre people, Independent Music Theatre, holds out promise for better things next year, and the feisty little Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre continues to impress.

Miscellaneous:

Best new (only new) theatre in Sydney in 2013: Best is a word that certainly applies here. All hail Sydney City Council for getting the Eternity Playhouse happening. It is a truly beautiful 200-seat house, and an adornment to the city.

Best seat in the house: A11 at Belvoir. The lucky incumbent – male or female, it didn’t matter- got a kiss from Toby Schmitz or Ewen Leslie during Hamlet. Alas I was not one of them.

Clearest indication that critics don’t matter much: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which got the kind of reviews cast members’ mothers would write, did poor business in Sydney. Those of us who wrote about it adored it. We had very little effect.

Doesn’t stop us though.

Goodnight, sweet prince

Hamlet, change of cast, Belvoir, Sydney, November 26

THEATRE critics don’t often revisit a production. They go to the opening, write, and move on. They must. Other plays, other companies relentlessly crowd the diary and then the season is over and the chance disappears. The critic has to make judgments swiftly, and very possibly on a performance that is not as good as it will become. But that’s the way it works. The review is a snapshot of that one occasion.

Toby Schmitz and Robyn Nevin in Belvoir's Hamlet. Photo: Brett Boardman

Toby Schmitz and Robyn Nevin in Belvoir’s Hamlet. Photo: Brett Boardman

By and large that’s fine. Few productions, within the four to six weeks of their run, will alter so fundamentally that another viewing will change critical opinion. It also must be remembered that critical opinion isn’t a singular, unified beast. It’s a collection of disparate views, often wildly differing.

Only infrequently, therefore, does a production make an ironclad case for being seen again. Simon Stone’s Hamlet for Belvoir came into this category through chance. The production opened on October 12 with Toby Schmitz playing the prince of Denmark, but he was released when shooting on a US TV series, Black Sails, in which he is involved, was brought forward. (Black Sails is described as a prequel of sorts to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.) Series one doesn’t premiere until January 25 but early buzz was so good a second series was commissioned by cable channel Starz and it started filming this month.

One can’t help thinking of when Geoffrey Rush withdrew from Belvoir’s 2003 50th anniversary production of Waiting for Godot to take a role in some pirate film. Yes, that would be Pirates of the Caribbean. That went pretty well for Rush. You wouldn’t want to stand in the way of an opportunity like that. But Godot hadn’t yet opened and John Gaden nobly stepped into the breach.

In the case of Hamlet Schmitz would need to leave two weeks before the scheduled closing date.

Quite a challenging situation, you would think, having to replace such a charismatic leading man, and in Hamlet to boot. Belvoir, however, hit the jackpot with the availability and willingness of Ewen Leslie to step in. Not only is Leslie one of the finest stage actors of his generation, he had played Hamlet in Melbourne in 2011, although this assignment was a very different one. Leslie would have to forget huge swaths of text and come to grips with a re-ordering of that which remained.

Stone’s Hamlet isn’t one for everyone, particularly those who don’t know the play, and while I would suggest this production isn’t one for the ages, its explosive energy and intensity of purpose make riveting theatre. Hamlet has been ruthlessly pared back – take out the interval and there’s not much more than two hours of drama – and is presented in black and white. This is literally so in design terms, with the first half set (such as it is; a wall of curtains and row of bog-standard chairs) a study in black and the second act performed in a bright white box in which only the grand piano from Act I remains. The first setting acts as a visual equivalent to the dark deeds that unhinge Hamlet and the second provides a bright canvas for all that blood. Grief and death are Stone’s preoccupations and he goes at them pell-mell.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously said of Edmund Kean that seeing him act was “like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning”. It wasn’t entirely the compliment it sounds. The meaning, it seems, is that with Kean you didn’t get the whole picture. Nevertheless, that wonderful phrase conveys the crackle and electricity of performance and could justifiably be used to describe this Hamlet and its strictly limited palette. The wonderful Nathan Lovejoy gets to be both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; Anthony Phelan is the ghost of Hamlet’s father, and in one of the production’s most touching moments is assigned Horatio’s beautiful words, “Goodnight, sweet prince”; an audacious puppet show economically replaces the travelling players; and so on.

All these things were immediately legible on a first viewing. The second viewing brought into sharper focus the production’s intimacy and complicity with its audience. The auditorium lights are often high and several times Hamlet crosses the invisible barrier between stage and seating. Even if not physically doing that, he makes searching eye contact. The idea of a soliloquy as ideas spoken aloud is transformed into a feeling of being inside Hamlet’s head as he tries to think things through. Leslie is particularly direct and powerful in this. At the performance I saw, when he demanded, “Am I a coward?”, you could feel people restraining themselves from answering. Thus, when the final scene is filled with blood-soaked characters, some of them are, strictly speaking, not yet dead. But as the duel scene rapidly unfolds, it is not unreasonable to apprehend these last moments as flickers of Hamlet’s dying thoughts. He sees dead people and so do we.

Stone’s production is not in essence changed by the change of cast, but naturally there are differences between Schmitz and Leslie. Schmitz was witty and unpredictable, wearing his rage and grief like banners of war in high-definition colours. Even when he was wracked with sobs there was the sense he was very aware of his effect and of how events may unfold. Leslie’s torment is no less overtly expressed yet feels more private. Deep thinking and even deeper desolation are his lot.

While on the subject of spellbinding performances, the weekend brings not only the last chance to see Hamlet, but also Marshall Napier in All My Sons at the new Eternity Playhouse for Darlinghurst Theatre Company. Napier is towering in a very fine, absolutely traditional staging of Arthur Miller’s domestic tragedy. There’s happily a little more time to see Paul Blackwell in John Doyle’s Vere (Faith) for Sydney Theatre Company. Blackwell is devastating as a physicist falling into the black hole of dementia.

Marshal Napier and Toni Scanlan in All My Sons. Photo: Brett Boardman

Marshal Napier and Toni Scanlan in All My Sons. Photo: Brett Boardman

Waiting for Godot runs until December 21, with as thrilling a quartet of performances as you could find anywhere from Richard Roxburgh, Hugo Weaving, Philip Quast and Luke Mullins. In the bewilderingly under-appreciated Dirty Rotten Scoundrels – by audiences, that is; the crits were the kind you’d write for yourself but houses have been small – Tony Sheldon and Matt Hetherington are a riot.

What of roles for women, we ask? Things are a bit thin on the ground at the moment, although Harriet Dyer is harrowing in Machinal at Sydney Theatre Company and Toni Scanlan magnificent as Kate Keller in All My Sons.

Like Hamlet, All My Sons had a key cast change during the run when Meredith Penman could do only a couple of performances as Anne due to another commitment. I didn’t see the well-reviewed Penman but her replacement, Anna Houston, was superb.

Remember how a couple of years ago there was a hoo-ha about lack of opportunities for female directors in theatre? That situation seems to have shifted appreciably, which is good. But what about towering roles for women. Well, this year we’ve had The Maids for Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert, and Joanna Murray-Smith’s Fury for Sarah Peirse, and newcomer Taylor Ferguson was given the title role in Miss Julie, although I found the production misbegotten.

I thought the unforgettable women of The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe were quite right when they made a joke about how they should have been in Belvoir’s Upstairs theatre instead of the tiny Downstairs space. But they weren’t.

As for next year, well, Sydney will see a man playing Hedda Gabler – Ash Flanders at Belvoir. But he will be directed by a woman, Adena Jacobs.

Hamlet and All My Sons end December 1. Vere (Faith) and Machinal end December 7. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels closes December 8. Waiting for Godot ends December 21.

Waiting for Godot

Sydney Theatre Company, Sydney Theatre, November16

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.

Hugo Weaving (Vladimir) and Richard Roxburgh (Estragon). Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Hugo Weaving (Vladimir) and Richard Roxburgh (Estragon). Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

The only questions are these: If one must go on, how is progress through space and time to be achieved? If events are out of our control, what things are within reach? If perception of the past isn’t to be trusted, is the present micro-second of consciousness – the “right now” – the only sliver of time that has any value?

Essentially the manner in which we face the void comes down to character, intellect and will. The hours will pass quickly, or slowly. They will be filled with activity that gives pleasure, or not. Actions will be taken, or avoided. There will be co-operation, or subjugation. All these things will be subject to change. It’s not so much what’s done that is important, but how it is done.

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.

Roxburgh and Weaving. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Roxburgh and Weaving. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

This truth is encapsulated briefly in the most affecting way. The second act of Godot brings a bitter expression of despair from Pozzo, seen in Act I as a monster of brutality and self-satisfaction but now blind and diminished. For a few seconds, though, he is roused to rage and then grim summation. “They give birth astride of a grave,” he says, “the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.” He has to move on with Lucky, his “menial”, once more weighed down with Pozzo’s belongings and attached to his master by a length of rope. But before they go Lucky, who has been so sorely abused by Pozzo, takes out a handkerchief and gently wipes his tormentor’s face. Pozzo has earlier called Lucky “my good angel”, and in Luke Mullins’s radiant performance Godot has just that.

Weaving, Luke Mullins (Lucky), Roxburgh and Philip Quast (Pozzo). Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Weaving, Luke Mullins (Lucky), Roxburgh and Philip Quast (Pozzo). Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

For me this is the production’s key image. Upton doesn’t go soft on the play, as that gesture may imply. 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. My favourite was the reassurance of Philip Quast’s magisterially blood-and-thunder Pozzo in the first act as he trawls for compliments after some speechifying – Pozzo claims he may have weakened slightly near the end. Roxburgh’s Estragon is quick to oblige, without the slightest hint of sarcasm. “I thought it was intentional,” he says, keen to win favour.

Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

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.

Finally, let us give credit where it is overdue. It was Irish critic Vivian Mercier who, in 1956, wrote of Waiting for Godot that “nothing happens, twice”. It’s hard to find a review that doesn’t reference that rigorous, economical phrase, although rarely with attribution and frequently with lack of understanding.

What Mercier wrote of Beckett’s play was this:

[Waiting for Godot] has achieved a theoretical impossibility – a play in which nothing happens, that yet keeps audiences glued to their seats. What’s more, since the second act is a subtly different reprise of the first, he has written a play in which nothing happens, twice.

“Theoretical impossibility”. Godot is the perfect expression of such a state, with its reliable unreliability of memory, the unendurable that must and will be endured, the nothing happening that takes close to three hours in the theatre to perform, and the constant tension between that which is said and that which is apprehended or done.

Vladimir: Well? Shall we go?

Estragon: Yes, let’s go.

(They do not move.)

Waiting for Godot runs until December 21.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Sydney Theatre, August 10

Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! It’s abominable! When! When! One day, is that not enough for you, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we’ll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more. On!

Pozzo, Waiting for Godot, Act II

I HAD forgotten to what degree Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern pays homage to Waiting for Godot while going backstage at Hamlet, as ‘twere. As the court of Elsinore goes through its well known paces, shown to us only in flickers and fragments, the two courtiers are left to fretfully consider just why they have been tapped to glean what afflicts Hamlet. Like Vladimir and Estragon they puzzle and ruminate, waiting for something to happen, never entirely sure of their shifting ground. That’s ground in the metaphorical sense; in the physical sense they seem rooted to the spot, unable to escape from a claustrophobic set of arches and tunnels that, disconcertingly, look fake but through which others – but not Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – come and go. The two are like actors who have lost the plot, babbling away, unable to find the right spot in the script and move on.

Ewen Leslie, centre, and the players in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Ewen Leslie, centre, and the players in Sydney Theatre Company’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

With Stoppard’s intellect and wit on speed dial – the man was born in Czechoslovakia in 1937; naturally he sees the mordantly funny side of existential angst – one has to be in alert form to keep up on both sides of the spotlights. Simon Phillips directs with unflagging vigour and a keen sense of the absurd, rightly, I think, valuing energy and momentum over textual clarity at times. Well, there are so many words that if you miss one or two, there’ll be another bunch along in a moment. (There isn’t a lot missed, and to be honest a couple of the more abstruse jokes are never going to score big with an audience so best to get ‘em out and move right along.)

Gabriela Tylesova’s design is a marvel of cunning, and not only because it uses the Sydney Theatre stage in a way we haven’t seen before. It is genuinely disconcerting as well as being playful and mysterious. What’s that funnel doing hanging above the stage? At the beginning we see it extrude some bare branches – shades of Godot! – and later there’s a kind of twisty, open-work ladder that trails off into the wings. All very sci-fi and theatrical. Tylesova has had great fun with the costumes too, memorably kitting out Heather Mitchell’s Gertrude as a mad version of Elizabeth I. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern revels outrageously in its play-ness (more Godot!), giving a particularly juicy role to the impresario whose dogged band of mixed nuts is hired to perform for Gertrude and Claudius.  “We are actors. We are the opposite of people,” says the Player, impersonated with lofty self-regard by Ewen Leslie, employing the rich, thespian tones of a man exceptionally impressed with the timbre of his voice.

Heather Mitchell and Christopher Stollery. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Heather Mitchell and Christopher Stollery. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

When it comes to words, however, Toby Schmitz’s febrile Guildenstern is your man, pouring out his thoughts and fears amusingly, obsessively, manically. (Even his hair is jumpy: Schmitz’s usually straight locks are hidden under a riot of curls.) Of course he has every reason to suspect all is not right. Tim Minchin’s Rosencrantz, on the other hand, is not quite so aware of the abyss yawning before them – why toenails don’t grow as swiftly as fingernails is more his speed – but intimations of mortality are everywhere. Schmitz and Minchin, Minchin and Schmitz. They are tremendously vivid and engaging and touching as well as being highly individual. Claudius and Gertrude keep mixing them up, to the point where the lads themselves become a tiny bit unsure about who they are. But that’s because no one else is really real. They are all opening their mouths, saying stuff and playing a part.

I’d like to think it’s fate that provides Sydney with the chance to see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Sydney Theatre Company), Hamlet (Belvoir) and Waiting for Godot (STC) in the same year. Indeed, in the same half of the year.  I don’t suppose STC’s Andrew Upton and Belvoir’s Ralph Myers cooked this up together, at least I hope they didn’t. Less fun that way.

Toby Schmitz, Tim Minchin and George Kemp. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Toby Schmitz, Tim Minchin and George Kemp. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

That two of the three plays feature Schmitz is a bonus. What a shame the scheduling of Hamlet makes it impossible for Schmitz – he is the Dane – to play Lucky to Philip Quast’s Pozzo while Hugo Weaving and Richard Roxburgh play Vladimir and Estragon. Or is it Estragon and Vladimir?

What brilliant casts we’re seeing in Sydney this year.

Postscript: The supporting cast for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is a knockout, and includes, along with Heather Mitchell, John Gaden as Polonius and Christopher Stollery as Claudius. And a special nod to George Kemp as the player Alfred, put upon in more ways than one.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern continues at the Sydney Theatre until September 14.