STC's Endgame

Samuel Beckett is revered as an absurdist avant-garde writer and playwright whose works frequently break with the conventions of the time and forge new paths through the literary landscape. Perhaps most well-known for Waiting for Godot, his work offers a dismally bleak and darkly tragicomic outlook on life, but try as we might now to bring a freshness to these sixty-year-old plays, it feels like Beckett’s original relevance is now wearing thin and that these works are starting to show their age.
Premiered in 1957, Endgame famously stars Hamm (a man who is blind and cannot stand), his servant Clov (who is unable to sit), and his parents Nell and Nagg (who are both legless, and live in garbage bins). Bound as each of them are to their positions on stage, the play has a certain staticness to it, a caged-in-ness to it, whereby nobody can move, no one can leave, and the only way out is death. It is undeniably nihilistic in its view of the world, and it makes for gruelling viewing.

Directed by Andrew Upton, there are moments of clarity here, moments of inspiredness – whether it’s from Hamm or Clov; in Nick Schlieper’s set and lighting, Renée Mulder’s costumes, Max Lyandvert’s almost subliminal sound design – and they are a welcome relief in the tedium of this – Beckett’s – endgame. As Hamm, Hugo Weaving is tremendously powerful; his sonorous voice capably fills the cavernous theatre with an aliveness and power which you cannot deny. He is a bit of an old ham, too, sitting in his chair, blind to the world, relying on Clov to move him and bring him things, and he relishes each moment. It is almost worth seeing this production just for Weaving’s voice. Tom Budge’s Clov is something of the Fool to Hamm’s Lear. His opening moments – whereby he brings on a ladder, opens the two high windows to look out to the world, uncovers Hamm and the two garbage bins – are full of a despairing clowning; we cannot help but laugh at his forgetfulness, his repetitive tic of trying to see out of the window without the ladder, fetching it, carrying it back and forth, climbing it to the window, and snorting with laughter at the top. It reminds me of the lazzi in commedia dell’arte, whereby each character and/or actor has their own stock physical jokes which they deploy for effect.
Nick Schlieper’ set – a towering conical cross-section of concrete, with windows set high up, makeshift curtains, decay and despair creeping in through the cracks – fills the stage and provides a backdrop which only amplifies the futility of Hamm and Clov’s predicament. Renée Mulder’s costumes are marvellously grubby and lived-in – from Clov’s woollen vest and shorts, his mismatched shoes, and neck-brace, to Hamm’s once-resplendent gown, his stained shirt, trousers, boots – the whole sordid affair of it captures a dismal and pathetic existence which seems to capture the futility within Beckett’s play.
But despite all this, all the trappings, the play is frightfully ponderous and empty of any kind of connection. Yes, there is the sense of obligation (more than anything) between Hamm and Clov, that keeps them in this rut, keeps them doing what they’re doing ad nauseam (as in Godot), but beside that there’s nothing but them needling away at each other and arguing for two hours; Clov saying he’ll leave but never making good his promise, Hamm threatening to die but never quite managing to; Hamm abusing and insulting Nell and Nagg until they too die…
Written over sixty years ago, Beckett’s plays are full of a Cold War sense of futility, a sense of the magnificent isolation of human obsession, desire, and experience; a sense of a world full of chaos, a world that could end in a heartbeat. Today, we might still be living in a world of chaos, and the isolation of human experience is heightened through technology, but we are more connected and interconnected, more ‘together’ than we were sixty years ago; true, there might still be a million ways we can die but they are, on the whole, a lot more insidious and invisible and slow than the button-press annihilation we faced two, three, generations ago. And while this production feels incredibly slow, it is – like a lot of Beckett’s work – still very firmly rooted in the late-1950s in which it was written.

As much as I love Godot, this is the endgame; I think I’m done with Beckett.

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