‘Endgame’ is a strange comedy written in French, by Samuel Beckett in 1957. Of all his works, it was Beckett’s favourite play, even more than ‘Waiting for Godot’. The Irish playwright was born in 1906, six miles south of Dublin. He lived in Chelsea until 1940, and then amazingly Beckett joined the French Resistance. After the war, he was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille de la Résistance by the French government, for his efforts as a courier whilst fighting the German occupation.
Beckett’s work is often minimalistic and bleak, but invariably blended with dark humour. Samuel Beckett once stated ‘Nothing is funnier than unhappiness’. In 1969, Beckett was awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature, for his depiction of human destitution and being a master of the Absurd. Indeed, this play shows the link between the physical being and the mind.
In 1984, he was elected ‘Saoi of Aosdána’, the ‘Wise man of Irish Literature’.
In 1989, Beckett died in France, and was buried in Montparnasse Cemetery.
Being an avid chess player, Beckett named this delightful, seldom presented absurd piece of theatre after the term for the final moves in a chess game. ‘Endgame’ describes the state of hopelessness when all potential moves lead to ‘death’.
The Black Swan State Theatre Company is staging this 100-minute (there is no interval), engaging adult comedy. It can be seen at the Heath Ledger Theatre, within the State Theatre Centre, 174-176 William Street, Northbridge each evening until Sunday 11th June. There are a few morning and afternoon Matinées. Most shows are at 7.30 pm, but please check the time for each individual evening.
Tyler Hill’s set is of an indeterminate period. Initially you find yourself in the sitting room of a house, and yet the kitchen seems to be outside – absurd. The room’s ochre coloured, rammed earth wall is 6-metres high; it has cracks and mould growing over it. These flaws seem to form the pattern of trees, fences and the countryside. The back door is 3 metres high. The two curtained windows are an unreachable height, half way up the walls.
Centre stage is an old G Plan, moquette reclining chair. To one side are two waste drums, with wooden lids.
The lighting design was simple, but towards the end of the play designer Mark Howett delivered a most impressive, slow colour change. The room looked as though encased in ice. This change was accompanied by a very slow, almost imperceptible, fade.
The production was stage managed by Georgia Landre-Ord and her assistant Jessie Atkins.
A man dressed as a farm hand, limps into the room, and removes a dustsheet from a reclining chair, revealing an old man asleep beneath. The man is a confused, crabby, control freak, Hamm (Geoff Kelso) – an abbreviation of ‘hammer’. Hamm is blind and unable, or unwilling, to stand. This long-suffering, but most willing servant, Clov (Kelton Pell) – from the French ‘Clou’, a nail – was ‘adopted’ by Hamm as a child. Their disruptive, yet unworldly relationship has existed for decades. However, Clov now suffers from physical and mental fatigue. He cannot sit down. In this bewildering world of ‘existence and non-existence’, Hamm preys on Clov’s suffering, by constantly making unreasonable demands.
In their post-modern world, Hamm’s rickety parents live in garbage cans. Despite having had a hopeless and failed life together, they still have strong egos, self-respect, and a touch of mutual affection. The cadaverous-looking, legless couple are Hamm’s father, Nagg (George Shevtsov) – from the German, again meaning ‘a nail’; and living in the dustbin next door to Nagg, is his wife, Nell (Caroline McKenzie) – named as it sounds like ‘a death Knell’.
Searching for their identity and mutual trust, the parents spend most of their time dragging up events of the past, and then aimlessly contradicting each other. Now, in their dotage, their relationship seems to oscillate between joy and despair, life and death; a perpetual battle between oppression and compliance in this ostensibly desolate world.
This piece of strange writing requires the highest of directing skills to make it succeed, and so it is good to see the Founding Artistic Director of the Black Swan, Andrew Ross, directing this challenging piece. Gabrielle Metcalf, who has a PhD in directing, and is on Secondment, assists him.
POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT: The story leaves one wondering if the whole situation is in fact, post-apocalyptic and whether Hamm is the only person left alive. Could Nagg, Nell and Clov be totally in his mind, as Hamm continues his unyielding search for contact with a non-existent, modern external world?
The director has selected four magnificent actors, all with résumés of the highest standard. Between them, they have a bundle of Equity awards (Australia’s highest acting award).
Kelton was brilliant as the ever faithful, obedient son, with his every action crammed with dry humour. Caroline and George as the decaying parents were outstanding; their portrayals were perfectly underplayed, resulting in the maximum comedic effect. Any attempt by them to play to the gallery would have killed the whole scene. Then there is our master of comedy, Geoff Kelso. On stage for the whole 100 minutes, and having to perform what was effectively a 100-minute monologue – a stunning performance of the highest quality.
For all of the actors there was neither rhyme nor reason to the dialogue, as it jumped illogically from one topic to another. Even a ‘good’ cast would have lost pace and missed passages, but these flawless performances were extra special and absolute perfection.