The infamous Eastlink Hotel highway installation – bleakly funny, original, clever, strange, alluring.
A play by Samuel Beckett, Endgame is playing at Southbank Theatre until 25 April 2015.
Set design by Callum Morton
Endgame Review – innovation choked by Samuel Beckett’s strict staging edicts
Beckett’s play was once spectacularly fresh, but Endgame’s staging brief now seems conservative and leaves modern audiences feeling estranged
Any production of Endgame which ignores my stage directions is completely unacceptable to me. My play requires an empty room and two small windows. The American Repertory Theater production which dismisses my directions is a complete parody of the play as conceived by me. Anybody who cares for the work couldn’t fail to be disgusted by this.”
So wrote playwright Samuel Beckett in 1984, for a note inserted by his own legal insistence into the programme of an American production of his play, Endgame.
Playwrights horrified at the mauling of their work by amateurs is an ancient trope of the theatre, but the ART production was no spit-and-sawdust presentation; Philip Glass himself was attached as composer. The director’s offence was to stage the then already 27-year-old play in a derelict subway tunnel. Court action resulted.
The play is now 58 years old, and as director of Endgame’s Melbourne Theatre Company revival (not to be confused with a competing production by Sydney Theatre Company), director Sam Strong carefully acknowledges in the programme, since Beckett’s death in 1989, “his executors have been notoriously litigious in preserving the integrity of his work”. As a “Beckett nerd”, Strong would well remember the controversy surrounding Neil Armfield’s Sydney festival production of the author’s Waiting for Godot in 2003: the estate contested his “illegal” use of music, leading Armfield to denounce a “dead controlling hand” as the “enemy of art”.
A similar experience was endured by director Deborah Warner – she disobeyed the stage directions of Footfalls in 1994 and received a Beckett-ban for life. Across the world, court summonses have appeared for casting women in male roles, and in 1998 a racially mixed cast of Waiting for Godot “attracted legal threats amid accusations it had ‘injected race into the play’”.
All of this history is necessary to explain why the MTC’s mainstage production of a classic text, directed with flair, of flawless design and containing a quartet of excellent performances is – for it truly is – such an excruciating night in the theatre.
The thematic territory, as with all Beckett’s work, is bleak. In a cement room, the limping Clov (Luke Mullins) performs daily rituals of opening windows, killing rats and tending to the blind, immobile Hamm (Colin Friels), who berates and controls him. As the servant bickers with his dependent master, Hamm’s elderly parents, Nagg (Rhys McConnochie) and Nell (Julie Forsyth), pop their heads out of dustbins to indulge nostalgia and ask for sugary things to eat. Around them, the world is in decay, the larder is running low and all four characters are probably dying. They share a few stories, tell a few jokes, but empty spats are their primary communication. At the end of the play one character is a corpse, another has left the room – and yet nothing has tangibly changed.
But bleakness is not the current problem with Endgame. Shakespeare had it on Beckett by a few hundred years when he described existence as “a tale / told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / signifying nothing”. Beckett’s innovation as an artist of the theatre was to recreate this sentiment by writing performance images of rocking chairs, empty rooms and denuded trees, visited by characters made painfully aware that beliefs, stories, poetry and even human love cannot affect the mortal warnings implicit in their circumstances.
The problem with trapping Beckett’s work, essentially in reenactments of his productions of more than 50 years ago, is that the semiotics of visual and performed language has changed; the rhythms of speech, gesture, the relation of people to objects, parents to children, the very protocols of human engagement are always evolving, as are the means by which we use the effects of the stage to communicate. Society accumulates new images and signs: Nagg and Nell may have been the most famous bin-dwellers of the 1950s, but to children of my generation that image belongs to Oscar the Grouch. The reason why we engage directors in the theatre is to navigate the language of the play into new signs to effect the understanding of the audience; Shakespeare has survived because successive generations of practitioners have had the freedom to manipulate performance and design to create a context that lends insight and meaning to language.
What’s going so spectacularly wrong with Beckett in the modern era is that the further time gets away from the original context of the scripts, the more the strict edicts of the Beckett estate trap the work in a mode of communication that’s increasingly distant from its audience. In the MTC production it’s particularly frustrating, for Strong is the best director he’s ever been – his spatial direction is excellent, with every moment an aesthetically impressive composition. Even with the restrictive Beckett-brief, he’s assembled an enviable design team: Tony-nominated sound designer Russell Goldsmith, brilliant young costume designer Eugyeene Teh and legendary lighting-designer Paul Jackson create tender beauty in the gloom, on a set designed by visual artist Callum Morton. That Morton is the artist responsible for the infamous Eastlink Hotel highway installation – bleakly funny, original, clever, strange, alluring – says half-of-everything about exciting artistic energy wasted by the Beckett estate’s conservatism.
The other half is said by getting Friels, Mullins, Forsyth and McConnochie to perform in a show that’s too slow and clumsy for them. Forsyth and McConnochie make the most of the slapstick afforded them from the bins, finding both bathos and genuine comedy, but the stage actions forced on poor Mullins are routines long exhausted of any comic value; you can’t help but imagine that an actor with his range, if left to his own creativity in rehearsal would find stage actions that honoured Beckett’s intention, with the comedy kept in tact.
As for Friels, his performance is exuberant, gentle, mad, vicious, heartbreaking. Although playing a man both blind and paralysed, his is a gargantuan presence achieved mostly through dazzling vocal technique and sheer force of charisma. In fact, the most entertaining aspect of Endgame is watching a masterful attempt by one of the world’s great stage actors to tear the “dead controlling hand” of Beckett fidelity from choking the throat of the play he’s in.
Friels goes down fighting to the last. But the reality is, for all the talent of its creatives, MTC’s Endgame is torpid. The pace of scripted language is slow. Its stage world is distant, and stage actions repetitive and uninteresting. We’ve been exposed to Beckett in this precise form for 50 years so the style no longer surprises. Its once-fresh tricks have been so imitated across the culture they’ve become stale cliches. As the MTC’s Endgame is one of eight productions of Beckett’s work occurring in Australia this year, across four states, this review joins mine of Lisa Dwan’s Perth festival Beckett (Not I, Footfalls, Rockaby) as something of warning.
Go to these shows to see the freshest work of the theatre year 1957. If you want to see a Beckett work that lives, you’re gonna have to wait until they pass into the public domain. In 2059.
Endgame review – innovation choked by Samuel Beckett’s strict staging edicts
Southbank Theatre, Melbourne
Fri 10 Apr 2015