Between a Here and a There
Misery loves company in Samuel Beckett’s "Endgame." And hates it at the same time too. In Beckett’s 1957 play from the end of the world, a world without end just keeps on going. A world where giving life an existential purpose is perhaps the most meaningless act of all. A world where God doesn’t exist, yet is held implicitly responsible for the suffering and drudgery He passes off as life. Meanwhile, there’s always distractions. Like storytelling, jokes, windows to be looked through, and some self aware theatre references. In Pan Pan’s current production, "Endgame" speaks to many contemporary concerns with its post apocalyptic, absurdist emphasis. In a production that aims high but falls short of the mark, despite a crowning turn from two marvellous maestros living discontentedly in their dustbins.
Narratively there’s very little to “Endgame’s” nihilistic tale of another day in the life of four people waiting around to die. Andrew Bennett’s curiously distanced Hamm, the blind centre in a universe of no time and no place, provides the curmudgeonly fulcrum around which everything and everyone revolves. None more so than his long suffering, son-like servant Clov, a man resigned to the beck and call of Hamm’s whims and whistle, ever ready to leave but never going anywhere further than the kitchen. At the opposite end of the generational divide, Hamm’s parents Nell and Nagg, a sublime Rosaleen Linehan and a mesmerising Des Keogh, live out their remaining days consigned to the scrap heap, residing in twin dustbins where they remember the jokes and stories of yesterday, whenever that was. With stories serving as distractions during everyone’s daily engagements, encounters come to approximate something resembling functioning dysfunctional relationships. Meanwhile, time marches inexorably on towards the end of all ends. Even if it seems like someone sent a lazy man to go and fetch the angel of death.
Thematically, "Endgame" is so richly layered it just keeps on giving. Even beyond director Gavin Quinn’s contemporary slant where an apocalyptic, end of days absurdism captures something of the uneasiness dominating the global, political zeitgeist. Aedín Cosgrove’s cubist styled set, showing hints of Mondrian, might subvert Beckett’s preference for a neutral time and space that could be anywhere, but it offers nothing imaginatively interesting in its place, looking like a badly constructed mural in a low budget playground, or a building clattered together from whatever hard edged, wooden objects happened to be lying about.
If "Endgame" deals in disharmonies of opposites, it's a disharmony reflected in performances. While Bennett makes some brave choices, they’re choices that don’t always pay off, with Hamm often sounding distanced and detached, like an omniscient narrator or an audiobook reader with a voice for radio. This might tie neatly into the storytelling themes veined throughout the play, but Bennett’s steady as she goes delivery often makes it hard to buy into Hamm’s authority. Or into believing Hamm's emotive connections, feeling too much like an idea on the page. As a result, the crucial chemistry between the ever sitting Hamm and ever standing Clov never really ignites. Leaving Morris’s hard working and world weary Clov looking adrift at times, even if Bennett and Morris manage to haul the pathos across the finish line right at the end. In contrast, Keogh and Linehan light up the stage during their brief insertions. If they have the advantage of history and chemistry on their side, it pays off handsomely, making for something deeply pleasurable as "Endgame" immediately comes alive under their auspices, before staggering off as it tries to stay on its feet.
If Pan Pan try to take "Endgame" somewhere that little bit different, it doesn’t always like where they want it to go. Not that "Endgame" can’t be reimagined, just here, like Hamm and Clov, it feels stuck in a somewhere between a here and a there. Yet "Endgame" has its moments, even if it doesn’t always sustain them, as it sets out to prove there’s nothing funnier than unhappiness. Something Linehan and Keogh, revealing a visceral sense of the humour and humanity that underscores Beckett’s script, play with to perfection.
“Endgame" by Samuel Beckett, presented by Pan Pan Theatre Company, runs at The Project Arts Centre until December 7.