Samuel Beckett seems to be enjoying something of a revival in Scottish theatre lately. There again, he’s never really far from the fray. As with Shakespeare, you can always be sure that someone somewhere is putting on one of Beckett’s plays. Last year Waiting for Godot opened at the Edinburgh Lyceum to rave reviews (and well deserved they were too). That production was made all the better by featuring two of Scotland’s most celebrated stage and screen actors – Brian Cox and Bill Paterson. Now another Beckett play – Endgame directed by Dominic Hill – has finished a brief run at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow, and it too deserves to have its praises sung loud.
In keeping with the theme of popular actors performing Beckett in the central belt, Endgame features David Neilson and Chris Gascoyne as Hamm and Clov, with Barbara Rafferty as Nell and Peter Kelly as Nagg. Yet here these instantly recognisable google-box stalwarts have traded in the soap and the serial for the absurd.
Endgame is a play in one act and yet it is astonishing what a brilliant writer can do with one act. The action literally and figuratively centres on the eccentric, wheelchair-bound Hamm. From the centre of the stage he attempts to control the lives of his disabled servant Clov and his aging parents, who live in two bins at the side. Where and when this bizarre state of affairs emerged from is not explained, and nor does it matter. Beckett simply demands that we accept the absurdity of the situation.
The scene opens with wheelchair-bound Hamm concealed under a sheet and bloodied handkerchief, while Clov climbs up and down a ladder to two windows at the back of the set. Such a protracted opening, devoid of any dialogue, still managed to elicit the first of many laughs from the audience. If Beckett intended this sequence as a foray into silent comedy (as I’m sure he did), then Gascoyne’s expert timing brought this purpose to the fore.
The characters remain in the same, cell-like space for the duration of the performance. The resulting sense of imprisonment is palpable to the audience, and it is within this confinement that the characters begin to realise the absurdity of their own situation. When the resentful Clov asks Hamm what there is to keep him from leaving the reply is ‘the dialogue’. In having the protagonists draw attention to the theatrical nature of their own lives Beckett begins to rip the play at the seams. Similarly, when Clov is about to leave Hamm as he has wanted to do all along, he remarks ‘This is what we call making an exit’. Neilson’s languid performance as Hamm and Gascoyne’s endlessly frustrated Clov together make these lines very funny indeed. Any laboured insights on the workings of meta-theatre can wait till after the show. Dominic Hill seems intent that this play first and foremost entertains. In that he has been successful.
When watching the relationship between Clov and Hamm played out it is hard not to think of Prospero and Caliban. Echoes of The Tempest are never far away, especially when Clov demands ‘I use the words you taught me. If they don’t mean anything any more, teach me others.’ The dependency of both characters on each other is beautifully wrought by Neilson and Gascoyne and the audience is left with the feeling that whatever brought them together has been forgotten in part. Now they seem to need each other in quite a desperate way. So when Clov does leave, the play’s end hits a rather tender and poignant note.
This somber parting is tempered, however, with wonderful comedy throughout. The elderly mother and father living in their respective bins would make an uproariously funny play in its own right. Though Peter Kelly and Barbara Rafferty would have to reprise their roles.
Lastly, something must be said about the set. If there is a world beyond this set it is known about by the audience and suspected by the characters. Piper’s suitably bleak rendering of Beckett’s world makes Clov’s desire to leave all the more desperate. The minimal touches – a painting, presumably of the outside world, turned away – enhance the space quite considerably. The audience’s attention is drawn to these details because there is simply nowhere else they can look.
This production of Endgame has been expertly crafted by all concerned. Long may our demands for the dramatic works of Samuel Beckett be so excellently supplied.