Acquired absurdist tastes

Endgame (shake & stir theatre company)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

August 9 – 20

Through no fault of the productions, I have never seen a Samuel Beckett work I have liked. Absurdism is just a personal preference of theatre things I typically don’t enjoy (along with puppets and audience participation). And when it comes to absurdism, you don’t get much more apparently meaningless than Beckett’s dense one act play, “Endgame”.

Since it was first performed in 1957 “Endgame” has polarised audiences and critics alike. As in Beckett’s more celebrated “Waiting for Godot”, almost nothing happens in the bleak play. There is no real plot or clear message beyond individual interpretation of its allegory of the final stages of life.

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It opens with Clove (Leon Cain), limping around a vaguely post-apocalyptic setting shifting things about, before pulling dust cloths from the blind, wheelchair bound Hamm (Robert Coleby) and the garbage bins in which Hamm’s legless parents live. As Clove repeats his routine of meaningless gestures, there is a discomfort in the extended silences, but humour too in some of the smallest of his actions.

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As dialogue begins, Clove and Hamm’s relationship alternates between slave/master and son/father in move towards an ambiguous ending within its ultimate defeat. As they each make move, they do so to manoeuvre the other into a certain position, in reflection of its namesake term used to describe an ending in chess where the outcome is already known. And, accordingly, it is the pauses and spaces between the lines that bring the work to life, courtesy of the outstanding performances of its cast in mastering the musicality of the text.

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Coleby is an imposing Hamm, dominating those around him with a bullying final attempt for power, despite, or perhaps because of, his physical infirmity. As his sidekick Clove, Cain transforms from cavalier black-comedy jokester to one who is more cutting in his comments, taking the audience from mirth to sympathy. The most charming performances, however, come from Jennifer Flowers and John McNeill, who play Nell and Nagg Hamm, with pancake makeup that only exaggerates the affectionate humour that banters between them. It is a shame that they have so little stage time, in keeping with Beckett estate requirements that all producers ensure total adherence to Beckett’s texts.

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The production team too are obliged by estate stipulations, but still achieve an imposing aesthetic. The characteristically-Beckett setting is of a décor reduced to the barest minimum. Accordingly, Designer Josh McIntosh’s staging is sparse within the solitary room setting, and authentic in detail of dusty floor and weathered walls…. even Hamm’s three legged (toy) pet dog is ugly. As enhancement, the bare set is lit by Jason Glenwright with the chill of industrial blue and grey, conveying a feel like that of the company’s “1984”.

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“Endgame” is a risky production for any theatre company. Beckett is already an acquired taste and this is his most grim work, with meaning not unanimously accessible to its audience members. In its uncompromising portrayal of the human condition and despair of hopelessness, it offers much for audience members to consider with regards to their own lives and regrets. Whether you end up trying to find its meaning, your meaning or just enjoy its language, there is no denying that this is a work worth seeing, if only to form your own opinion of its worthiness as part of the dramatic canon.

Photos c/o – Dylan Evans

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