MIAF: Endgame ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

MIAF: Endgame

Festival diary #9: Monday

Beckett: Endgame/Bach: Chaconne
by Samuel Beckett and JS Bach. Directed by Anne Thompson and William Henderson, designed by Julie Renton, lighting design by Niklas Pajanti. With David Tredinnick, Peter Houghton, Evelyn Krape and Richard Bligh. Violin by Miwako Abe. The Eleventh Hour, Leicester St, Fitzroy, until October 25.

(Note: season extended to November 8, bookings 1300 136 166)

Every time I visit The Eleventh Hour's beautiful little theatre in Fitzroy, it seems to me that this company is just getting better. Over the past few years, directors Anne Thompson and William Henderson have built up a loyal audience with their vital productions of classic texts. The Eleventh Hour eschews museum performances, searching instead for the live spark of creation, and they've often taken a robust approach to the texts they've produced. Sometimes this has been less than successful, but you can never claim that they are not interesting.

They seek, as they say, "poetry in the theatre, theatre in the poetry" (it seems I can't avoid poetry in this year's Melbourne Festival). Hence their interest in the arch poet of the theatre, Samuel Beckett. This superb production of Endgame premiered two years ago as A Tribute to Samuel Beckett, and was justly lauded for its remarkable performances, which netted Peter Houghton a Best Actor gong in the 2006 Green Room Awards.

They've remounted Endgame for the Melbourne Festival, and among other things this production demonstrates the immense value of revisiting successful work after it's been seasoned in front of an audience. It gives a company a chance to deepen and refine their understandings, to make a clearer draft of something that was already good. And The Eleventh Hour has taken this opportunity and run with it.

This production has certainly evolved from its last outing, and has ironed out all its bumps. Originally it began with a showing of several scenes from Buster Keaton's films, which then segued into a live performance of a Chaconne from Bach's Partitas for solo violin, played by Miwako Abe. The play itself was introduced with an extract from Molly Bloom's monologue from James Joyce's Ulysses. The aim was to contextualise the work, but the effect was distracting and effectively destroyed the play's beginning, with knock-on effects on its rhythm. Beckett is such a stringent and unsparingly intelligent theatre writer that it's very difficult to depart from his vision without making it lesser.

This time, the contextualisation works just fine. The production opens and closes in total darkness, with the violin playing close by. Sitting in in the dark listening to a live performance of Bach is an experience I can recommend; you will seldom hear music with such sharpened ears. And Bach's stern, formal loveliness is an excellent counterpoint to Beckett's writing, a kind of aesthetic cleansing for what occurs in between.

Keaton now is a graceful allusion, rather than a didactic lecture. A brief film, Neighbours, plays above Clov's head as he appears as a grotesque still life framed in the doorway in the final few minutes of the Chaconne. The music ceases, the lights come up and the play begins.

Julie Renton's traverse design has been turned around, and is at once simpler and more essentially playable. At one end the door in the wall, which was basically ignored last time, becomes the door to Clov's kitchen and Hamm's chair (throne? cupboard?) is on a dais at the other, reached by a ramp. There's less white and more distressed grey around the walls.

But where the remount really pays off is in the detail of the performances. They were already blindingly good; now there are deeper resonances - the Shakespearean echoes in Beckett's text are, for instance, beautifully played - and a more confident theatricality. And as with Shakespeare, there are no small parts: Evelyn Krape and Richard Bligh as Nagg and Nell reprise the cruel comedy of their roles, with a shade more pathos this time; Nell if anything seemed more wistful, more despairingly bleak, in her impotent lustfulness.

David Tredinnick as Clov gives a performance of startling physicality, striding awkwardly around the stage on unbending legs, all savage clownishness. His final monologue - the only time when Clov really gets to be more than a peg to Hamm's mallet - is as finely honed acting as I've seen, each phrase edged with passionate bitterness that plays hard against his liberation from the game of life ("When I fall I'll weep for happiness").

But the night again belongs to Peter Houghton's portrayal of Hamm. I don't know how he managed to age 30 years for this production - it's not merely an effect of make-up - but that impatient, imperious, cruel profile dominates the production. It's a marvellous performance, rich in actorly flourish that exploits every nuance of Beckett's language.

If there's a criticism to be made, it's that occasionally in the vaudevillean to-and-fro the dialogue was a little rushed; sometimes I wanted a little more air. But I suspect that was an effect of opening night, as it abated as the play progressed. And that's really picking nits. This is a work of deep and thoughtful integrity, that finely balances Beckett's merciless humour with his profound compassion. You'll rarely see such a vital production of Beckett's work, and all those who managed to get their hands on tickets can feel justly smug.

My review of the original production (where I talk a little more about the play) is here.

Picture: Peter Houghton (Hamm) and David Tredinnick (Clov) in The Eleventh Hour's production of Endgame. Photo: Ponch Hawkes.


Anonymous said...

I saw this production in 2006 and I was blown away. The subtleties in Tredennick and Houghton's performances was astonishing. Beckett is always a difficult text to realise and the superb dynamic between each and every cast member was superb.
This production has stayed with me since that 2006 night and I wondered then if this was exactly the way the Beckett was meant to be performed: with clarity yet ambiguity, detail yet perspective. Two years have done nothing to diminish my respect and admiration for the brilliant execution of this play. I'm sorry to have missed out on tickets the second time round!

Anonymous said...

You haven't missed out on tickets... the season is extended to the 8th November and tickets are still available through Ticketmaster 1300 136 166... if you are quick.

Alison Croggon said...

Many thanks Colin - dutifully noted! Til, the production certainly has that air of being definitive. I've actually thought both times with this production that there is something incorrigibly Australian about it: the black humour and wit and theatricality and bleak philosophy of Beckett's writing work very well in Australian. Something in the cadence of the language...

Anonymous said...

Prompted by your comment, Alison, that not enough people comment on TN about works they have enjoyed, I have decided to write a few words about what I thought of Endgame. I was blessed to see a preview performance on the season, and was utterly blown away. As a studying actor, I am becoming more and more aware of the complexities (and sometimes over-complicated things) within putting on a production... and to see a piece of work so beautifully brought to life was so inspiring. The way the space was used, the way the actors inhabited it, the way Beckett's words dripped from their tongues, the experience of a live violin playing in darkness. Breathtaking and utterly mesmerising. If anyone was craving a good dose of theatre, this would be the show to see!

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Thomas - it was (is) indeed a memorable show!