Out of Samuel Beckett’s major plays, Endgame (1957) is possibly the most elusive. As with all Beckett’s works, whether theatre, novel, film or poem, the piece represents a deconstruction of his chosen media, and Endgame is particularly meta-fictive in this regard. But while Beckett is always interested in ruminations on the process and means of artistic representation, there are more curious things going on in Endgame than a mere breakdown of traditional plot or character structures.
Set in a small stone bunker, Endgame tells the story of the last living people on earth after an unspecified cataclysmic event. The tyrannical and chair-bound Hamm can neither see nor walk. He is tended to by his servant Clov, who limps around the stage and is physically unable to sit. All the while Hamm’s legless parents reside in two trash cans. Beckett was always fond of cripples, and here he offers a depiction of life’s gradual descent into degradation. In this setting, though, the portrayal is not merely confined to bodies, but life as a whole. Everything is in a state of decay.
In a world where there are no more bicycles, sugarplums or pain killers, the only thing anyone has left to cling to is other people. Hamm is an invalid and so totally dependent on Clov. Clov serves his every whim, yet he does so unwillingly. ‘There’s one thing I’ll never understand. Why I always obey you.’ Throughout the play Clov constantly threatens to leave, yet he never does. Here we have another example of Beckett’s pseudo-couples: two people bound together and unable to separate. We see them in Godot with Didi and Gogo, Happy Days with Winnie and Willie, and Not I with Mouth and Auditor. So why does Clov obey, why can he never leave? It’s because he is equally dependent on Hamm. Only through his interactions with another person, who can confirm his existence, is his life given any semblance of meaning. It’s the same reason why Hamm forces his father to listen to his story, when he could just as easily tell it to himself. Theatre of the Absurd is always concerned with questions of where meaning in our life comes from and Endgame represents Beckett’s attempt to get to its core.
This could well be one of Andrew Upton’s finest productions. Nick Schlieper’s confined set design, equipped with dripping and reflected water keeps to Beckett’s original intention without falling into the overly familiar. Together the two have created some striking imagery. Endgame is not a play for the lighthearted, though, and without a strong cast the piece would be unbearably tedious. But Hugo Weaving has successfully made this one of the ‘not to be missed’ productions of the year.
Weaving is simply masterful in the role of Hamm; he is cruel and selfish, bound to a chair, unable to stand. Hamm has lost the use of his eyes and for the actor, it is a hard slog. However, you wouldn’t know this with Mr Weaving at the helm. Aided by only voice and gesture, Weaving commands the stage from his immobile position, no small feat. In a word, his performance is faultless as he weaves through the dialogue with effortless musicality, each syllable ringing in our ears, bringing the lyricism of Beckett to life. This is Shakespeare for the existentialist, and Weaving is in fine if not perfect form.
Tom Budge plays Clov, servant to Hamm, who is unable to sit (so he tells us). Hunched over, Budge is a powdered clown, with agility and timing largely on point. Budge does not begin how he intends to finish and he finds his rhythm later than we would like, but once found, he fits well with Weaving’s pace.
Bruce Spence and Sarah Pierse have comparatively little to do in the script, as Hamm’s parents, Nagg and Nell, both of whom have no legs and live in dustbins side by side. Pierse is melancholic and sombre, her voice a morbid rhythm of time and hope running out. Spence shows Nagg to be a fading light, one that flickers every now and again at the thought of distant happy memories. Together they strike a chord, such as a church bell would at the end of a funeral.
If there was ever a moment to get acquainted with Beckett then it would be now, when a seasoned cast is able to do justice to this challenging piece. This isn’t easy viewing, Beckett demands a lot of his audience, but this is an occasion where the rewards are well worth the effort. Endgame is playing with the Sydney Theatre Company until the 9th of May.
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