If you don’t know Beckett’s work, it can be puzzling. If you do know it, it can be even more puzzling, and Endgame comes in a group of post-World War II plays that includes Godot, Krapp’s Last Tape and Happy Days (performed superbly only a year ago in Brisbane by Queensland Theatre Company with the greatly-missed Carol Burns).
This puts it in the category of Theatre of the Absurd, a term invented for much European drama of the post-war period, mostly written by playwrights who had fought against the Nazis in Resistance France. The outcome is a nihilistic view of the world where, as Estragon says in Waiting for Godot, “Nothing happens. Nobody comes, nobody goes. It’s awful”, a phrase which has entered the language.
Endgame is a much more complex play than Godot, in that people do come and go, and even die, and two of them live in dustbins as opposed to rubbish heaps. And in spite of the publicity shots, Jennifer Flowers as the mother Nell (death knell?) is not the star, and has only one short but totally engaging appearance in the first act. The rest of the cast is made up of other members of the family. John McNeill (Nag), who occupies the other dustbin and provides a pointed commentary on the past, as all old people do, is the husband of Nell and the father of Robert Coleby (Hamm), the central character who, blind and unable to walk, sits in his chair and orders his son Clov (a brilliant performance, both funny and heart-wrenching, from Leon Cain) to do mindless tasks like moving a wooden ladder around the stage. Characters disappear and even die, until the blind crippled Hamm is left alone with nobody to tell him what has happened. Coleby’s performance is very subtle here – Hamm, his character, is a bully but he’s also quite pathetic, so that it’s difficult to hate him as he deserves as he’s left there alone.
“O dark, dark, dark, they all go into the dark”, as T.S. Eliot said in East Coker just a decade earlier, and whether Beckett is making a direct reference here or just reflecting the general zeitgeist doesn’t really matter, for it’s all part of a chilling but essential way of experiencing the world today.
For older generations, this way of looking at the world is understandable, but for young audience, who should be full of hope, it can be unnecessarily depressing. Where’s the fun and laughter? Surprisingly, the young people who made up half the opening night audience found plenty to laugh at, and not in a derisory way, either. They were able to understand the ironic bitter humour that underlay the hopelessness of the situation, and possibly realised that you just have to laugh. No adolescent mockery coming from them, but a wisdom that I was delighted to see, which showed that younger audiences are not after just froth and bubble, or mindless violence, which is all that so many recent adaptations of the classics have been able to offer us in Brisbane.
The younger part of the audience, like the rest of us, were responding to a highly intelligent and sensitive director, who understands the play and is able to draw every nuance out of it. Michael Futcher is a perfect combination of theatricality and intellectual understanding, and although Beckett left very strict instructions about what can and cannot be done in terms of setting and text, Futcher honours them all while allowing every nuance suggested by the sub-text to emerge and provide a kind of light to lighten the darkness. Yes, we may give birth astride of a grave, the light may gleam an instant, then it’s night once more (Beckett and Godot again), but by opening and closing the play in utter silence and darkness, Futcher recognises Beckett’s understanding that there may be a few laughs possible in that instant, because that, as much as the misery, is the human condition.
Endgame is flawless play and a flawless production – I urge everyone to see it.