Funny unhappiness

EndgameReview by Penny Mulvey

Play l Endgame l MTC

There is no curtain call at the conclusion of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, the latest Melbourne Theatre Company production. The curtain comes down, ending as it began, with a high pitched chorus of sound in total darkness.

Endgame describes the final moves in the game of chess, but the play, first performed in 1957, was originally written in French, and Beckett could not find an English word that captured the fullness of meaning.

The one-act play paints a bleak picture of four people, each trapped within their own prison, inside a prison-like room, inside a world devoid of life and hope. The absurdist theatre features characters, Nagg (Rhys McConnochie) and Nell (Julie Forsyth) without legs and living in bins; the protagonist Hamm (Colin Friels) blind and unable to stand; and his servant Clov (Luke Mullins) shuffling, in pain and unable to sit.

Devoid of distraction, Beckett forces the audience to confront a world stripped bare – no food except a dry biscuit; no entertainment except a daily excursion around the walls of the grey room; no visitors because nothing else lives.

The co-dependence of Hamm and Clov, as they enact their daily routine of verbal punishment, debating when each might die, the conundrums of living, and their irritating reliance on each other, is painful to watch. As Clov says, “All life long the same questions, the same answers.”

It is natural to try to find meaning in a play. McConnochie and Forsyth give riveting performances trapped within their personal bins, but with white and ageing faces, do they represent past memories or are they there to interpret the present?

However, as Nell says: “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness”. Beckett was more interested in stripping bare, working with impotence and ignorance, not meaning and knowledge.

This production directed by Sam Strong remains true to Beckett’s intent. The set is dismal, the room literally a prison – grey concrete walls, two small windows nearly two-and-a-half metres above the floor, like eyes into the outside world, utilitarian, barren.

The theatre remains in pitch black for some seconds after the cacophony of sound before the stage gradually lightens and our eyes discern a figure standing in a door frame. The appearance of daylight pierces the gloom of the barren room, through the two small curtained windows high above.

The deliberate halting actions of Mullins, as Hamm’s foil – unwashed, with no purpose beyond the unseen kitchenand the bare room – introduce the audience to this monotonous, insular, barren place. No word is spoken as he shuffles around the room, drags himself up a ladder, carefully flings open the curtains…until he lets out a staccato laugh.

Hamm, trapped in a lounge chair on wheels, is hidden under a sheet in the middle of the room, waiting to be woken by his servant. In fact, Hamm is revealed to the audience like an onion, one layer at a time. First the sheet, only to reveal a person whose face is hidden by a large, very dirty handkerchief. As that is removed, we are introduced to Hamm, a character not to be pitied, wearing round dark glasses. Friels is masterful in this role: manipulative and cruel; despairing and powerful; without hope and yet in need of love and reassurance.

What does laughter mean in a Beckett play? Clov emits five harsh laughs before he speaks. Nell makes her observation about humour in unhappiness from a dustbin. There are no guffaws. There is sadness about the silence from God. But when life is stripped back, when there is no more, for Beckett, there are stories and there are memories…and there is impotence.

Endgame by Samuel Beckett
21 March to 25 April
Southbank Theatre,
The Sumner


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