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Saturday, 16 March 2013

ENDGAME - SAMUEL BECKETT. PLAY

Someone mentioned the word "depressing" to me recently when talking about seeing the Beckett play, Endgame. This is not how I see Beckett's work at all. Sure, he is not Andrew Lloyd Webber, but as long as you are aware of what to expect, Beckett is thought-provoking, hilarious, moving, unique. There is more than just sadness and death.

Though there certainly is an amount of sadness and death in Endgame. It is set in a decaying world, with four characters, all in various states of dishevelment and ruin. It takes place in a small, shabby room with two high windows looking out on to the Earth and to the sea. Ham is the central character, literally, as he sits in his wheelchair in the centre of the room for the majority of the play, and he is joined by his servant, Clov, and his parents, Nel and Nagg, who live in dustbins or oil drums set on the front of the stage.

Hamm is blind and unable to stand, Clov is infirm and unable to sit, the elderly couple are frail and near death. It could be easy to see such a scenario as "depressing". Yet it is anything but. First of all Beckett has a sense of humour about the misery. "There is nothing funnier than unhappiness," says Nagg at one stage.  The exchanges are frequently hilarious. "How will I know if you're dead?" Hamm at one stage asks Clov. "I'll smell," Clov replies. "But you smell now," says Hamm back to him. The humour is juvenile at times, Beckett clearly isn't above a "you smell" joke, but it leavens the sense of despair and pushes the play into the world of the absurd.

It is also a profoundly aimless, futile world, a world where almost nothing happens. "What time is it?", asks Hamm. "Same as always," says Clov, "Zero." A universe where it is always zero o'clock, somewhere where progress is impossible, where nothing moves forward. And yet they joke about it, and talk about it, and moan about it, and look back and look forward, and Clov debates with himself whether he is going to leave or not, and Hamm just wants it all to end. It may be futile and decaying, but it is lyrical and funny and moving as well.

In the production I saw, by the Blue Raincoat Theatre Company, the stage was bare except for the two drums where Hamm's parents lived. The makeup was effective, red for Hamm, white or grey for the other three, making them all look like they were dried out, decaying, or like corpses. And the performances were fully realised, the actors clearly bought into the material, went fully with Beckett's words and ideas and world-view.

My only quibble is that the two characters in the tin drums are underused. Nagg and Nel are a break from the Clov-Hamm duo, they reminisce and tell their stories and are tender with each other, and are a counterpoint to the two main characters. And then they slowly fade out of the action, Clov believes that Nel has died though Nagg lives on, silent and doting, shut into his drum.  And so it more and more revolves around Clov and Hamm, and the question of whether Clov will leave. And I missed the dustbin pair when they faded away, when the play became more intense, and more focused on the pain of Clov and Hamm in the centre, and on their battle. Nagg, in fact, is responsible for my favourite line in the play.

Hamm (to his father): Why did you engender me?
Nagg: I didn't know it was going to be you!

The fading out of Nagg and Nel is not the fault of the production, of course, it is the way the play is designed, but it seemed to me that it would have benefited from using Hamm's bin-bound parents a little more. As characters they are underused, and almost have the status of a gimmick.

That said, it is a curious, fascinating experience, and a profound view into Beckett's twisted way of thinking. It is a play based on a mixture of nostalgia and horror and futility and comedy and devastation. A mixture that is impossible to find anywhere else.


2 comments:

  1. I don't think I've ever seen a play, certainly not in recent years anyway, that made me consider it quite as hard as Endgame did. To me, all the unanswered and unanswerables drew me into the world he created to house his characters and the possible meaning (or lack thereof) of everything in it.
    At one point I thought that Clov and Hamm's relationship was representative of Britain and Ireland's but then thought that these days it was more like Europe and Ireland's. When I started to make connections like that I also started to see how Beckett had cleverly constructed the plays themes and characters to be relevant regardless of the age.

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    1. Yeah, you could look at their relationship in many different ways. Parent and child, master and servant, jailer and prisoner. It't true that Beckett left so much unsaid and unexplained so that the viewer has to make their own connections.

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