With two productions of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame simultaneously playing in Sydney and Melbourne, there’s already been quite a lot written about a contemporary audience’s relationship with the great playwright, how well the play can work and breathe given the massive restrictions the Beckett estate places on directors, and the merits of staging the play at all in 2015.All of this has been written in the context of the Sam Strong-directed Melbourne Theatre Company production, which opened a little over a week ago, but the production which opened last night at Sydney Theatre Company would seem to shine a very different light on the material.
Hamm (Hugo Weaving) sits in a dark, grey room (or bunker?), unable to see or stand, and waits for “the end”. He relishes in his darkness and pain, and is faithfully tended to by his much-abused servant Clov (Tom Budge). Meanwhile, his elderly parents Nell (Sarah Peirse) and Nagg (Bruce Spence) wait with him in two side-by-side garbage bins, popping up now and then to offer some lively observation or moment of slapstick. That’s about all there is to the play, in terms of plot, but Beckett is relentless in his focus and detail, creating epic dramatic worlds out of the most restricted elements. Endgame takes much of what Beckett explored in Waiting for Godot and ruthlessly strips the drama and comedy back to its core. For my money, Endgame is the more accomplished work.
There are moments where the characters show a Beckettian self-awareness that now feels old-hat and naff, but that’s not what lies at the heart of this play. There’s still plenty of currency in the tiny glimpses of humanity which emerge as his all-too recognisable characters are staring into an abyss of destruction. Even amongst Beckett’s work, Endgame stands out for how well it encapsulates the human experience of boredom and purposelessness.
But the thing about Endgame is that it’s hysterically funny if it’s done well, to the point that it never feels like too hard a slog despite its almost two hour running time. This production gets plenty of hearty laughter, and there didn’t seem to be much restlessness in the opening night audience. It’s not because there’s a particular comedic approach taken by anybody on or offstage, or any attempt to dumb the material down or inject it with crowd-pleasing action, but because it’s all played for truth, and played damn well. One of the most well-known quotes from the play (and the one adorning STC’s publicity material for this production) is “nothing is funnier than unhappiness”, and this production dwells in the darkest possible darkness, and feels more energetic and alive for it.
Hugo Weaving is brilliantly cast as Hamm, delivering a performance which is at once technical and detailed, focusing on the minutiae of his character’s experience, while embracing the broad emotional sweep of the play. The vocal lines he draws through Beckett’s words are engrossing and musical enough that you could simply shut your eyes and listen.
Tom Budge’s Clov, on the other hand, is almost entirely visual, with his hunched, cartoon-ish posture and superb clowning. His take on the role isn’t always entirely in step with Weaving’s Hamm — Weaving invites the audience to lean in and listen, while Budge reaches out to them — but it works particularly well for a large theatre. Bruce Spence and Sarah Peirse are absolutely charming as Nagg and Nell. Spence puts his distinctive physicality to great effect, and Peirse, one of the true chameleons of Australian theatre, is so quietly generous and astute that it’s disappointing that her character has so little stage time.
Set and lighting designer Nick Schlieper has found a way to make the space seem intimate with a concrete bunker which restricts the actors but towers high above the stage. You could almost feel Hamm and Clov are stuck at the bottom of a great well, dwarfed by the vastness above.
Over the course of his artistic directorship at STC, Andrew Upton, who directs this production, has proven himself to be particularly adept at drawing nuanced and passionate performances from actors (or at least creating a space that allows those performances to develop and grow) and creating “faithful”, but lively productions of fine plays. His Endgame is no exception, with just a few personal touches which create new resonances — instead of their traditional dustbins, Nell and Nagg are sitting in empty oil drums, with slicks of black oil swirling around the edge of the stage. It gently suggests questions about these characters’ back stories and how they came to end like this.
There’s a multitude of Beckett on stage in Australia this year, and several commentators have asked why we’re seeing quite so much of his work. That’s always a question critics should be asking when works are revived. Why this play? Why now? Is there any real justification for reviving it? Endgame is actually not staged all that often in Australia, probably due to its reputation as being an impenetrable work. Upton’s production proves how profound, fresh and, dare I say, accessible the play can still be within the restrictions which the Beckett enforces.