Being the penultimate show in the Barbican’s Beckett Centenary Festival somehow seems appropriate for Endgame, a play which promises a conclusion it never quite reaches.
As one of the characters says, “Something is taking its course”, but whatever that course is it’s taking a hell of a long time to get there and the ending is, well, inconclusive.
First performed in 1957, Endgame possesses many of the qualities of Beckett’s previous play Waiting for Godot, in which characters perform rituals and play games in an effort to distract themselves from their pain and fear, and pass away the time until something significant happens. Unlike Godot, though, there seems to be absolutely no promise of salvation here, as the only expectation – or hope – is death.
Endgame has an extraordinary beginning, with no dialogue for the first ten minutes. Clov enters a bare room and climbs up a stepladder to uncover the curtains from two windows, looks through them with a telescope, then gives a disappointed grunt as if nothing out there is worth seeing. He removes the dustsheets to reveal his employer Hamm slumped on a dilapidated armchair, and two dustbins, from which Hamm’s parents Nagg and Nell later pop out – like existential versions of Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men.
The master/servant relationship between Hamm and Clov is reminiscent of the exploitative but mutually dependent relationship of Pozzo and Lucky in Godot, with some of the banter of Vladimir and Estragon thrown in. The characters’ mental anguish is reflected in their physical disabilties: Hamm is blind and cannot stand, Clov cannot sit, while Nagg and Nell are legless. Things seem to be winding down as the pap and painkillers have run out, Hamm throws away his few remaining possessions in readiness for death and Clov is threatening to leave – but finality is elusive.
As with Godot, despite the stark scenario there is plenty of black humour in Endgame, where “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness”. Again there are some vaudevillian routines, including Clov trying to exterminate a flea in his trousers, and some great one-liners, such as Clov remarking about the rat in his downstairs kitchen that: “If I don’t kill it, it might die.” Even the reason for Nagg and Nell losing their legs is ludicrous – they had an accident while riding a tandem.
Charles Sturridge’s nicely balanced production squeezes every drop of pathos and humour out of Beckett’s tragicomic absurdist universe. At the ‘centre’ of this world, Kenneth Cranham gives a powerful performance as the chair-confined tyrant Hamm, full of cruelty and self-pity, caring nothing for other people but afraid of being alone, and needing an audience for the stories that he weaves – even for him some warmth of human contact is necessary.
As Clov, Peter Dinklage manages the comic business with aplomb but fails to find the rhythm in Beckett’s highly charged poetic language. The intimate companionship between the ghostly white Tom Hickey’s Nagg and Georgina Hale’s Nell, side by side but unable to touch each other, is movingly conveyed – their bodies may be confined to dustbins but their struggling spirits are not so easily disposed of.