Hugo Weaving talks about his ‘love affair’ with one of the 20th century’s knottiest writers.

Do you remember your first encounter with one of Samuel Beckett’s plays?

I don’t actually, but I can remember my first encounter with a Pinter. Of course Harold Pinter was massively influenced by Beckett and I can remember very clearly
that feeling of watching something that was somehow rarefied but also intensely engaging at the same time. I suspect that’s what I felt when I watched Beckett for the first time as well.

Of course Beckett isn’t easy. Some people get it and some people don’t. As an actor, when you sit down and look at a Beckett play, how tough do you find it?

Yeah, Beckett is very hard. It’s intensely demanding on the audience but also intensely demanding on the actor. Of course Beckett did say: “my ideal play would be one without any actors”. [laughs] But also theatre meant that he could be released from being on his own, I think. Writing meant that he, Samuel Beckett, could be engaged in a creative activity with other people. His plays demand a particular music, a particular rhythm and a particular form. The form is everything with him. And yet an actor’s process is such that if you’re just replicating form, it’s an empty vessel. 

Beckett was very hard on his actors when he was directing his own plays. They would always go: “Samuel, what does this mean?”. And of course that was the question you never asked Beckett, because it’s an actor’s question and actors need to work these things out for themselves. They need to find some internal kind of ‘river’ to get them from one moment to the next. But actually what works from an audience point of view is the form of the piece. It’s the words – the actual physical structure of the words themselves and the aural structure of the words. 

I think with Beckett, you need to understand that there’s something incredibly prescriptive and musical and rhythmical and formal about his language, yet at the same time, as an actor you’re obliged to be eternally present. In other words, there is a form, but it has to be alive. That’s the challenge for an actor – in any play actually – but something about doing Beckett makes that challenge more acute – and that’s the thrill I’ve found when doing his work.

“There is a form, but it has to be alive. That’s the challenge for an actor, but something about doing Beckett makes that challenge more acute”

So is part of that thrill simply to do with coming to some sort of understanding of what he is saying?

It is, but it’s like trying to comprehend a poem. You hear a poem and there are reverberations that poem makes. And Beckett’s a poet, first and foremost – he certainly saw himself as that – and playmaking for him was the third rung on the ladder of his writing abilities, I think. But he always said that poetry isn’t there to clarify; it’s there to suggest. So the multitude of meanings is more interesting to Beckett than the meaning, the pinned down one meaning. The possibilities of the expression and what it suggests to the audience and how it suggests different things, is critical. So I think that’s one of the reasons he didn’t want to pin down his meaning. At the same time he didn’t want to be exposed, and he didn’t want to be obvious, and he didn’t want anybody to see these autobiographical links in his work. Of course they’re there, but they’re not just there. There are, for example, religious and spiritual and classical references, but they’re not just that. So rather than trying to find one meaning for any one thing or for the play, if you can suggest many things, then that’s where you really want to get to. Having said that, an actor can’t play six, seven or eight meanings. But if you’re aware of the potential within a phrase, and play one (but not too hard), then you’ll get all of them.

So presumably that breadth of meaning in Beckett is part of the fascination for you?

It is, you know. He’s one of those writers. I don’t know if you know that radio program in England, Desert Island Discs? There was a book that you could take to your desert island. Well of course you’re allowed your Shakespeare and your Bible, but I think for me, if it wasn’t the complete works of Samuel Pepys, it might well be a Beckett novel like Watt. That is something you could read endlessly and it’s hugely entertaining and very, very funny, but kind of insane and eternally suggestive and elusive. I really love the quality in his work where you’re both laughing at him censoring himself and choosing a better word. You can see the machinery of the piece, but at the same time there’s nothing missing. It seems very spare and pared back, and yet it’s incredibly suggestive and expansive. I think that’s why I think he’s an absolute genius and why I love reading his works. I find him hugely funny, actually, and at the same time precise. And failed!
I don’t mean he was a failure, but that he was exploring what the failure of all of us is, and I think that’s what makes him really human.

Although Beckett leaves the interpretive meaning open a lot of the time, he can be incredibly prescriptive in a visual sense. I think he said of his gravestone, it should be any colour so long as it’s grey. So you’re often told exactly what the character should look like, what the set should look like, you know that if you put music in he’s going to be upset… Is that a prescriptive thing for you?

Understanding what he really meant is great, but I think to be pinned down by what you imagine to be a prescription is also dangerous. He himself changed his opinions on his own plays. For example, after having directed say Godot or Endgame two or three times, his ideas shifted increasingly as he understood his own plays in performance, and he made little changes. He did say, “look all I know is what’s on the page”, which was partly his way of getting out of a confrontation with people, but then you’d see that he wasn’t pleased and if you tried to find out what was wrong he might offer some input. 

I think that’s why he eventually started to direct his own plays, so that he could control them more. But those productions changed as he understood more about his own pieces and the possibilities and problems within them. So I think whatever prescription that you might feel with Beckett, you should also feel that first and foremost he’s a human being and that whatever seems to work now, in your particular place and particular time, then that probably is the most valid thing. 

Also, I think our understanding of Beckett must have improved over the years – our ability as audiences to read Beckett, and see the humour in Beckett, and to see the theatricality and the joy in a Beckett play. When he was first performed there was a great deal of head scratching and he was seen as a terribly serious, terribly intellectual man, and so somehow foreboding. I suspect we can enjoy him better now, and I think that’s a great thing.

You are currently rehearsing for Sydney Theatre Company’s Endgame, which is quite a complex play. At this point in the process, what are your thoughts on what it’s trying to say?

Well, as the name suggests it’s End-game – we’re very much at the end of something. It feels like the plug’s been pulled out and the water’s going and there are these people in this particular place. The water’s going down, and they know the water’s going down, but they’re still in the bath. It’s just starting to make that [vocalises gurgling sound of a drain] noise, maybe. The water’s just starting to squeak, and there’s something more alarming about that place than perhaps there was yesterday. It feels like something has been winding down for quite a long time. Is it the end of the world? Is it this apocalyptic vision? Are these the last four people in the world? Does one of them die? 

It feels like all of those things are suggested. And we have to take it that these four people are on a stage – whether they know an audience is there or not – as they seem to somehow reference that. So a theatricality is there, but you can’t push that too much. Essentially it feels like it’s about two couples; it’s about relationships; it’s about the impossibility of both being apart and together with someone you’ve been with for a long time. We all understand the frustrations of very close relationships, and the desire to have your own space but also the desire to still be with that person, or the routine that maintains the relationship. I think all of those things are universal.

“When he was first performed there was a great deal of head scratching and he was seen as a terribly serious, terribly intellectual man, and so somehow foreboding”

Beckett makes very big choices for you. For example, Hamm, the character you’re playing is blind and can’t stand. What do you think Beckett is telling you to do by giving you such a big pointer right at the start?

Well, the more he wrote, the more he restricted actors – or the more he restricted his own characters. Whether that’s with his prose or his playwriting or his poetry, he increasingly limited the frame. You go from characters who can walk about with difficulty in Godot, to Endgame where three or four of the people on stage can’t move, to some of his later works where you’re just focusing on a mouth, or someone’s buried up to their head in sand. 

He’s restricting you to the form of the language, but at the same time he’s expressing something that’s deeply felt by human nature – that we’re all restricted by our bodies, by our health, by our lives, by our routines, yet we need to keep on talking and keep on trying to nut out what this life is. “I can’t go on, I’ll go on” – he uses that expression in one of his novels. For an actor, he’s increasingly limiting your physical range in order to highlight the language and what’s behind that.

You are also Associate Director on this play. Is that something you want to do more of?

In a way, yeah. Andrew [Upton] said I must direct something for Sydney Theatre Company, so we’ve been talking about it for the last couple of years. I’ve been interested, but for one reason or another – mostly to do with me – that hasn’t happened. I suppose there are two reasons I’m doing it now. One is that the idea of doing this play came out of working on Waiting for Godot with Andrew. [The production tours to London in June]. We both really loved that experience. It was very challenging and difficult but wonderful, so we thought we should do another Beckett. So when this came up it felt like a natural thing to jump into. 

In a practical way, I really don’t sense a huge difference from, say, being just an actor in Godot, because it’s a very open rehearsal room and in a collaborative space, I think actors feel free to – and I think they should – throw in their opinions. So it doesn’t feel like a big gearshift. I suppose the main difference is that I’m involved in conversations and meetings about the set and how the whole of the production is going to look, which is something I’ve taken an interest in, but I’ve never been practically involved with it in the past. 

The second reason, I think, is the older I get, the more I feel as an actor that I have a great deal of experience to offer. So if actors have a lot to give and a lot to bring to the table, why not engage them more in the process? I certainly feel that with film. I go up to a film set now and I think, “well, I’ve been working for 30 plus years and I’ve done many, many, many films – and the same might be true of the crew – and yet the director and the producer have only done two films between them”. So although the decisions are being made by people who may (or may not) be brilliant, there’s often a wealth of experience around that’s not utilised. So the older I’ve got the more I’ve felt that I’d like to be involved more in that process.

You’re clearly a massive Beckett fan. Are there any others of his plays that you’re itching to do?

Well, actually, Robert Menzies did a one-man show, First Love, that was an adaptation of a little novella. Beckett put out four short stories around the same time – First Love, The ExpelledThe End, and The Calmative – and I think it would make a great night to have four different actors in the central roles in those four pieces. But yeah, perhaps one day Krapp’s Last Tape – but who knows really. I just love his work and it’s been a real joy to explore his writing over the last three or four years, first because of Godot and now because of this. He’s an extraordinary writer and an extraordinary man. I feel really privileged to work on Beckett because it is difficult and it is challenging and it’s moving too. He must have been a difficult man to be with in many ways, but I expect a really beautiful man in another way.

Endgame is at Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney from March 31–May 9. Waiting for Godot with Richard Roxburgh, Philip Quast and Luke Mullins is at London’s Barbican, June 4-13. Both are directed by Andrew Upton