29/10/09, Duchess Theatre
Written by Penelope
Samuel Beckett doesn't do joy. He's not big on hope. He's not into fun. But he's a master at bleak humour, at malevolent co-dependence and at observation of the petty details of the human condition. It's a challenging evening for an optimist. Yet somehow his plays make people laugh.
Endgame is a play about endings. Hamm (Mark Rylance) is stuck in a chair, unable to see and walk. Clov (Simon McBurney) is his 'carer'. Living in a pair of metal bins to the right of the stage are Hamm's parents, Nell and Nagg (Miriam Margolyes and Tom Hickey). What we witness is the relationship between these two 'couples'. Watching Nell and Nagg is a bit like seeing your grandparents in their old age - lots of 'do you remember whens' and stories that no longer make sense, or have been told so often that you no longer see the point in listening. These parts are tenderly and beautifully acted. Given that both actors are confined to bins for the duration of the play, that's quite an achievement. Nell dies, very quietly, while the lid is down on the bin and watching Nagg's grief as he realises she won't be coming up again is remarkably moving.
Anyone who's ever read Beckett, as well as seeing the plays, will know that his stage directions are very precise. He proscribes the movements and scenery in enormous details. So the movements of the actors, and the props are very deliberate. As Clov enters the stage at the very beginning of the play, he wrestles with a set of ladders so he can view what's going on in the outside world from the high windows of their basement room. Here is Chaplinesque movement and humour, it seems every time Clov gets to the top, he realises he's forgotten something. You can see the jokes a mile off, but somehow they still make you chuckle. McBurney's portrayal of Clov is endearing. Here is a man trying to do his duty, while feeling trapped, bewildered and losing hope. He can see beyond his restricted little the world but doesn't quite get there. McBurney uses Beckett's language perfectly and imbues each line with feeling and meaning.
The only problem of the production, for me, is Mark Rylance as Hamm. Clearly, he's a talented actor. But somehow the pitch of this doesn't quite work. He delivers the lines but they don't hit the right note. It's altogether rather too manic. 24 hours after seeing the play, I don't remember anything he did or said. But the words and actions of the other three still echo in my head.
My companion for Endgame was a student at Trinity College, Dublin in the 1950's and went to see Beckett receive an honorary degree there in 1959. We puzzled over the play and its meaning afterwards. As an optimist, I was looking for a message of hope (I found several in Waiting for Godot earlier this year). At the end the play, Clov makes the decision to leave Hamm and Nagg and go into the outside world. He's breaking free. He can no longer bear to be imprisoned in the basement serving other people. This, said my companion, is the one moment of hope in the play. I'm not sure what Samuel Beckett would have made of us searching for a positive message in Endgame, but knowing Clov could escape helped me to enjoy it all the more.