Review: For Samuel Beckett ~ theatre notes

Monday, November 27, 2006

Review: For Samuel Beckett

For Samuel Beckett: Endgame, by Samuel Beckett, directed by William Henderson and Anne Thompson. Design by Julie Renton, lighting design by Niklas Pajanti. With David Tredinnick, Peter Houghton, Richard Bligh and Evelyn Krape, music performed by Miwako Abe. Eleventh Hour Theatre, 170 Leicester St, Fitzroy, until December 9.

I've never understood those who accuse Samuel Beckett of being a miserablist. If he were as nihilistic as his critics claim, he would have written nothing, and he wouldn't have been half as funny. And he is often very funny indeed.

Comedy is always cruel, and perhaps it is most pitiless when it springs from a compassion as profound as Beckett's. Beckett's compassion is not of the kind that can be easily construed in humanist terms; it is far beyond looking for transcendent meaning in the human condition. Rather, Beckett grants his strange characters a space in which the trivia of their existence in a godless, inhuman universe is given its proper dignity. Where nothing means anything, everything becomes significant.

In Beckett's work, this dignity is most often expressed through refusal. Winnie's sprightly self-deception in Happy Days has a kind of bleak heroism that is not so far from the Woman's "Fuck life" in Rockabye. Hamm and Clov's refusals in Endgame are comprehensive: they refuse even the possibilities of pity, redemption, life itself. What is left is the performance, the game, the play.

In Beckett's theatrical oeuvre, this game takes many forms: some of his plays are more like installations, and not all of them are comedies. But all of them, without exception, pierce to the quick of existence. If Beckett is one of the great writers of the 20th century - and I would argue that he is - it is because of the utterly uncompromising rigour of his vision. I know of no writer more truthful and less self-deceiving than Beckett. Nor can I think of a writer who is more concerned with formal beauty.

Because of this, it is a fine stroke to begin and end the performance of For Samuel Beckett with a performance of two of Bach's Partitas for Solo Violin. Like Bach, Beckett was a master of the art of repetition and variation, and the performance by Miwako Abe induces a mood of receptive meditation that is wholly appropriate for a Beckett performance. There were other aspects of the framing of Endgame that I was less taken by, but more of that later.

This is, simply, a brilliant performance of Beckett's greatest play. Endgame is as close to perfect as a play can get, as precise as a great piece of music in its modulations of tone and rhythm, and here it is served by a superb cast. It is, as the title implies, a performance of ending, a play in which everything is negated. "Something," as Clov says, "is taking its course". That something is, of course, death; but it is also life. The play is a process of discarding: the list of things that no longer exist drop through the text like a refrain. There are no more bicycles, nature, Turkish Delight, coffins or painkillers. Clov and Hamm want to be very sure that there are no more human beings to continue the farce of human existence; even a flea raises the possibility of a new evolution, and must be exterminated.

Without casting for cheap laughs, the actors fully exploit the vaudevillean quality of the dialogue. This conversation, for example, between Nagg (Richard Bligh) and Nell (Evelyn Krape) is straight Abbott and Costello:

Nagg: Can you hear me?
Nell: Yes. And you?
Nagg: Yes. (Pause) Our hearing hasn’t failed.
Nell: Our what?
Nagg: Our hearing.
Nell: No.
Because of the nature of this play, it is easy to think of it as a two-hander. But, as in Shakespeare, there are no small parts: Nagg and Nell are as crucial as Clov and Hamm. The legless parents of Hamm, they are shut in ashbins, just as the aged are shut in Old People's Homes. Krape infuses Nell with a kind of scatalogical pathos, investing her with a wistful lustfulness that is both comic and genuinely sad. Nagg hasn't Nell's romance with memory: as he says, "One must live with the times". Hamm's "accursed progenitor" is both Hamm's past and his future: the cruelty Hamm visits on him is only a reflection of the cruelty he visited on Hamm as a child; and he presents Hamm with a vision of what will greet him in old age. Richard Bligh gives him the pathos of the dethroned patriarch, at once vicious and impotent and pitiable.

But the evening inevitably belongs to Hamm (Peter Houghton) and Clov (David Tredinnick). These two are superlative: their timing is faultless, exploiting to the full the comic potential of the dialogue. In their hands, the play rattles along like Boadicea's chariot, cutting down swathes of illusion with savage flair. The light I have always seen in Beckett is switched on at 1000 watts.

I had no idea (my oversight) that Peter Houghton was such an actor; this is a consummate actor's role, a performance of a performance, and it permits him the full range of his abilities. Hamm is presented in his full motley: manipulative, tyrannical, ungenerous, sardonic, cruel, hammy, vain; but also wholly without self-pity or self-deception. Tredinnick is an apt foil: crouched into a question mark, he clumps noisily and clumsily around the stage, rebelliously obedient, dour, savage and resentful. Their performances are a joy.

Julie Renton's design puts the audiences on two sides of the stage, with the famous windows (portholes) at one end, and Clov's kitchen hidden behind white cloth on the other. It's surprisingly effective; it makes it rather like watching a tennis match, which suits the rapid-fire dialogue. Hamm's wheelchair is a kind of mobile chest of drawers and both actors are dressed in variants on clown costumes, which again put a subtle spin on the play without being intrusive. And the whole thing is sumptuously lit.

It would be a nigh perfect night in the theatre, were it not for some mystifying add-ons by the directors, William Henderson and Anne Thompson. The evening is called For Samuel Beckett, which signals it is not simply a performance of Endgame. It opens with a couple of brief contextualisations: a projection of Buster Keaton's One Week, and an extract from Molly Bloom's monologue at the end of James Joyce's Ulysses. Keaton's piece seems merely didactic in relation to the whole, there to show how Beckett was influenced by this sort of comedy. Less easy to understand is the Molly Bloom piece. It is said - beautifully, it must be admitted - by Evelyn Krape as a disembodied voice inside the ashbin, just before the beginning of Endgame. Those unfamiliar with the work could be forgiven for thinking it was part of the play.

It is an ill-judged move, all the more baffling for the quality of the production that follows. The Joyce/Beckett connection is at once cliched and often overstated: it is very hard to see any real connection between Molly and Nell and, if one wanted to do such a thing, it might have been more interesting and illuminating, say, to excerpt Celine. And it effectively destroys the beginning of the play which, in a work as formally crystalline as Endgame, is a high price to pay. The further the play progressed, the more I missed the symmetries that are set up in the opening minutes. Similarly, if less grievously, Nell's death is signalled by a short violin solo, and it takes a little time for the play to find its rhythm afterwards.

It's a tribute to the performance of Endgame that it transcends these decisions. Beckett is one of the few theatre writers - perhaps the only writer - of whom it can be said that departing from his instructions is almost always a mistake. As this production amply bears out, his strictness can offer unique freedoms.

Picture: David Tredinnick and Peter Houghton in Endgame. Photo: Ponch Hawkes


Sookie said...

I saw this link on your webpage, and I just wanted to tell you that I love your books!
I've just finished reading The Riddle-and I can't wait till the next one comes out (I live in the US so the Crow hasn't been released yet).

Avi said...

Thanks for this review, Alison - I love Eleventh Hour's stuff and the space they perform in is quite incredible. I'm looking forward to seeing it.

Ben Ellis said...

- Will there be sharks?
- Sharks? I don't know. If there are, there will be.

Wish I could see it, albeit after the Molly Bloom contextualisation. Unless the point of such a contextualisation is to generate discussion.

Tangentially related to your previous post, Kenneth Tynan's review of the English premiere of Endgame is an absolutely snide, sardonic hatchet job. It's as if Tynan believes that he is in competition with Beckett and seeks to out-Beckett the playwright. At least it's more than a string of adjectives...

Alison Croggon said...

Um... thanks, Sookie. The Crow will be out there early next year, I think, so not too long to wait.

I've been chewing over these performances, and they richen in retrospect. I listened to the inimitable Jack MacGowran reading a couple of Endgame monologues yesterday - that bewitching, intimate voice - it couldn't be more different. It got me thinking about other Endgames I've seen - Jacek Koman and Alex Menglet years ago (pretty wonderful), and a Gate production which was ok but which I hardly remember, and Gambon as Hamm in that Beckett on Film series with David Thewlis...Gambon in comparison seems too heavily histrionic. No disrespect to Mr Gambon, of course. For me Tredinnick and Houghton get it so right...

Alison Croggon said...

PS Is it that Australian thing of great skill plus a good pinch of necessary disrespect?

Walsh said...

Dear Alison,

I suppose that it is some kind of testament to the theatre that two people can see a play and leave the house with almost exactly polarised opinions.

I too am a bit of a Beckett fan, Endgame being my favourite text, although I am far from being an expert. However, I was dismayed by this production, to be honest. Although it was competent and well designed, the show I saw (sat night) failed to gain much laughter at all from the audience, which seems to me to a sort of failure in a production of this work. I am perhaps tainted by my viewing, as an undergrad of the BBC production with the brilliantly laconic Stephen Rea as Clov and the wily, reedy Norman Beaton as Hamm. Rea shows Clov as deadpan, with half cast eyes and an Irish accent, rather like a combination of Buster Keaton and Bernard from black books. "I'll leave you," becomes more of the throwaway "i'll leave ye," as a servant says to his or her master upon exiting the drawing room.

The hunchback characterisation of Clov by Tredennick however turns this exclamation into an accusation of shakespearean proportions: "i'll LEAVE YOU!" And this shouty quality seemed to permeate all the interactions between the leads, which, to me seemed to belie the point of the dialogue between Hamm and Clov. Thier conversations are empty, tired routines, this is after all an endgame, the stage of a chess game that is over but can never finish. Hamm and Clov are exausted rather than energised and this bubbling irritation, the sighs, rolled eyes and under the breath frustration is the source of the humour, rather than, the clomping and banging of props. Which was obviously a stylistic choice, as was the 'rapid-fire' nature of the dialogue. Basically I simply disagree Alison, that the two "exploted to the full the comic potential of the dialogue," and on saturday night I think that the audience agreed with me. Indeed, showing the Buster Keaton film at the start of the show highlighted for me the inability of this production to create the dead pan type of humour which make Endgame work.

I know Tredennick is a brilliant actor, but I think that the role of Clov would be best played by a comedian playing it straight.


Alison Croggon said...

Hi Rich - thanks very much for putting your critique here! I'd love to see more people post their opinions of a work, especially if they disgree with mine - it makes the whole thing richer. If this week has illustrated anything, it's the ability of a work of theatre to generate vastly differing responses, which is surely part of its power. And also the elusive nature of performance - the night I was there, there were lots of laughs.

I haven't seen the Rea/Beaton version. All the same, I can see why you might respond as you did - another way to do that play is to rein it in (a la MacGowan). Though I found the comedy drove the tragedy in harder, hammer and nail (I found out recently that Clov means "nail"). And I really wouldn't say I was any kind of Beckett a way, heaven forbid...