Samuel Beckett’s Endgame is currently seeing two productions in Australia – one by Melbourne Theatre Company, directed by Sam Strong, and one by Sydney Theatre Company, directed by Andrew Upton. I can’t speak for the Melbourne production, but in Sydney, the production is slowly, creepingly extraordinary: a spell that binds you, over time.
Last year, Weaving and director Kip Williams turned the Roslyn Packer Theatre (formerly the Sydney Theatre) inside out, and Weaving’s Macbeth filled the gaping auditorium, filling the extraordinarily large space with his tormented Scottish King. This year, as Beckett’s Hamm, Weaving is confined to a chair onstage, and still he fills the room and draws the eye consistently, and he does it with a marriage of harshness, weariness, and a pinprick or two of vulnerability that melts into the darkness, leaving with a mess that lingers. It’s thrilling.
It’s an astonishing performance because of its exhaustive complexity; Weaving’s own brilliance allows him to create a Hamm that radiates authenticity; not quite a broad-strokes tyrant or distant cipher, but someone who dances on the edge of sympathetic before pulling back and ordering instead a cruel command.
But there is more to this production than Weaving.
Instantly, what’s so striking about this production – and certainly part of it that has lingered top of mind, along with Weaving’s mesmerising vocal inflection – is the design. Nick Schlieper has created a set that feels endlessly tall (the curtain goes up, and up, and up, slowly, like it’s ascending to heights beyond us all). It’s curved like a tower or a sunken bunker or a well with improbable windows. Immediately present is the sense of being irrevocably cut off from the world.
Welcome to Endgame.
To reach those windows, as you sense he must, Clov (Tom Budge) needs a full-size ladder, and even then he can barely scale up to them. It’s all bluish and dark, in there, with an eerie rippling lighting effect (also by Schlieper) that offers the gentlest hint of dripping water, the subtlest touch of decay.
Hamm is in his chair, under a sheet, as Clov shuffles in. Beckett’s stage directions for the opening minutes of the play are exacting, and famously wordless; they do something pretty remarkable in the way they capture the drudgery and absurdity of routine without over-illuminating the point. Budge follows the well-known steps with resignation, and it’s genuinely funny in his delivery.
This is true of the whole production: it’s often funny, teetering on the edge of humour and despair, which is Endgame and Beckett’s sweet spot, and Upton has calibrated it perfectly so that it feels like a completely satisfying experience. For Upton, the piece is a masterwork: he’s coaxed something genuinely meaningful out of a play that can occasionally feel too stale or past its time.
It’s the end of the world, or the end of something, at least. The excitement of that has clearly died down, so dead it’s turned rotten, and here are our characters: Clov and Hamm, Nell and Nagg, waiting for the inevitable to hurry up so they can succumb to it. Details are never made truly clear, but that’s fine; just like Beckett frequently wrote pauses into his dialogue, we’re given the room to digest it all for ourselves.
Bruce Spence and Sarah Peirse are doing finely-built, excellent work as Nagg and Nell, trapped in oil drums (a tantalisingly small hint for a line, later in the play, about Old Mother Pegg that died for want of oil). Spence’s Nagg is almost mystifyingly alive, a symphony on one face and a pair of hands peeking out of a drum, an impressive amount of physicality in such restricted movement. And Peirse brings a similar virtuosic performance, a strain of warmth as Nell, touchingly attuned to Nagg.
Budge is the glue of this production as Clov, the only mobile character on stage (of course, he’s not without his issues: he can move but it hurts, and he cannot sit). His performance is broader than Weaving’s, which is a small but crucial difference between them – Clov seems occasionally not of the world of the rest of the characters. However, for the most part Budge is fantastic; misshapen and unhinged and angry and lucid and waning and wanting, mining the nooks and crannies of Clov for things that stick. His performance as the run continues will surely only become stronger.
Upton and Weaving work well together; in Upton’s Waiting for Godot, which will tour London’s Barbican Theatre later this year, Weaving’s Vladimir was disarmingly good. Here, in Endgame, which Weaving has associate directed, together they creates the tiniest sensations that tend to take a corner of the brain and refuse to be forgotten.
When Clov brings Hamm his toy dog, Hamm takes the sad stuffed thing in his arms with a grotesque boyishness that moves, almost unconsciously, into something more genuine. Comfort flickers across his face, a face where we can’t even see his eyes. Hamm’s peace only lasts for merest of seconds, as it should – he has plenty more to do, like antagonise Clov and wait agonisingly for this whole thing, this charade of life to end – but it’s there, and Weaving gives it to us, whether we’re present enough or not in the moment to see it. He is full of gifts. There are plenty of moments just like this.
Upton’s directorial touch is never light, it’s too decisive to be light, but between Weaving’s mastery from his chair and Budge’s bent-double pottering, occasionally with one battered bunny slipper and one boot on, and the cracked-white faces of Nell and Nagg peeping and huddling, and the softest sounds of dripping water, it becomes easy to think he’s not there at all, that this play has stood in its place at the Roslyn Packer for a hundred years, that these four have lived here too long, long before and after Upton showed his hand and shaped this one hundred or so minutes’ worth, and that’s perhaps the greatest compliment it can be given.