first night

Endgame

Rebecca Mackinnon leaves the Norman Chapel impressed by CTC's production of Samuel Beckett's play.

Watching a play known for the fact that the author, to achieve the desired sparse profundity, translated from English into French and back again to distil meaning to the very bare bones of language, is a little daunting. CTC’s production of Endgame was, then, pleasantly surprising (if pleasant is a word one can use to describe a post-apocalyptic absurdist nightmare, of course).

I must congratulate the directors, Jila Bahri and Liv Burnett, on the most visually accessible use of the Norman Chapel space I have seen. As far as I could tell, most people had a very adequate view of what was going on – considering that three of the characters are physically incapacitated, and two never move at all, this is quite a feat.

In such a static play, too, the casting of David Knowles as Hamm was a real coup. Hamm must command the stage, and the other characters, and Knowles has the kind of lugubrious intensity in his voice that has the capacity to simultaneously stultify and mesmerise; for a play dealing with the inescapably cyclical ennui and terror of life, this quality was very important – to gently horrify, to quietly panic the audience. Knowles held silence beautifully, and despite the blacked-out glasses and his obvious blindness, one couldn’t help but feel at times that he was somehow looking past his blindness.

Realism is not a word that happens to feature much in Samuel Beckett’s vocabulary. Reading Endgame in my long-past undergrad years I remember being struck with the utter rigidity of the language and total unreality of it, and this of course is a deliberate alienation technique on the part of the writer – what struck me during this production, however, was actually the pleasingly familiar and mellifluous prose of the dialogue. Not that the show had missed Beckett’s absurdist point – I only mean to point out that despite the innate strangeness of the play, the cast and direction had managed to bring out a humanity and pathos I had previously missed in reading.

The key to this human heart was Biddy Briggs as Nell. This character has the fewest lines, but I found myself drawn to her quiet delicacy in the inactive moments. She brought a genuine wistfulness to the repeated longings for ‘Yesterday!’ and was a good contrast to Owen Shipton (Nagg) and his grotesquely distorted facial expressions. Clov (Oliver White) shows a wry and tragic self-awareness of the absurdity of the situation, and this was achieved through White’s dry tone and exasperated manner with Hamm – however, the quasi-realism of his portrayal, though justifiable in the sense that he is simply not as ridiculous as the others, jarred a little with the other characters; I would have liked to see a more definitive and decisive stance in characterisation.

The play’s one major failing lay for me in the immortal Beckettian line, ‘Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.’ While the cast did draw out the odd chuckle from the audience (usually during the meta-dramatic moments: ‘What’s keeping me here?’ ‘The dialogue.’ (audiences always feel very clever when they understand these moments)), the innate absurdity of life and the terrible comedy of these ridiculous characters could have been exaggerated with a few tweaks of intonation and timing.

Despite this, I left the play feeling drained and depressed, which is surely what Beckett intended. The final few minutes of the play have decidedly morbid anti-climactic feel; I found myself hoping that every time someone mentioned the word ‘the end’ that the play would in fact end; Beckett in his infinite wisdom has created a world of perpetual non-action, and despite the emotionally and intellectually draining and crushing nature of the play, the audience is given one respite – that we are able to leave, while the characters must eternally remain in their post-apocalyptic world of cyclical and meaningless language. Clov’s words are still echoing in my head: ‘That means that bloody awful day, long ago, before this bloody awful day. I use the words you taught me. If they don't mean anything anymore, teach me others. Or let me be silent.’ Well said, Sam. How very depressing. But perhaps how very true.

2 March 2011

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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