Andrew Upton manages to make Beckett his own in this darkly comic take on the apocalypse.

Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay, Sydney
April 7, 2015

Despite the notoriously litigious and megalomaniacal influence of Samuel Beckett (even posthumously thanks to the ardency of his executors), the enduring attraction of his visceral genius has ensured that directors have continually braved the rigidly insistent semiotics of Endgame for almost 60 years. Beckett is unequivocal about the significance and execution of almost every action, prop, costume and set detail, lacing-up a creative straightjacket that leaves very little wiggle room for innovation or reinvention. It’s a play, in a poetically apt way, which can seem doomed to exist ad infinitum as a monotonous repeat of its original 1958 staging.

With such fixed parameters, the burden of responsibility for injecting some noticeable individuality into any iteration falls to the ineffable nuance of the actors’ delivery, which lay safely beyond the “dead controlling hand” as Neil Armfield once labelled it, of Samuel Beckett and his exacting instructions. Fortunately Sydney Theatre Company Artistic Director Andrew Upton and his deftly assembled cast, led by Hugo Weaving, have achieved an account of Endgame that is wrought with an albeit subtle, yet palpably insightful originality. 

Of course fundamentally the dramatic terrain is navigated in accordance to Beckett’s strict laws. A dank, decaying room with two windows, houses a collection of wretched characters: limping, misshapen, miserable Clov (Tom Budge), who reluctantly serves his blind, crippled, eccentrically sadistic master Hamm (Hugo Weaving), who sits, atrophied, in a dilapidated armchair. Hamm’s equally immobile mother, Nell (Sarah Peirse), and father, Nagg (Bruce Spence), missing their legs, seemingly in a state of degenerative corrosion, live in a pair of ashbins, only occasionally popping up to reminisce or beg for sweets. Beyond the room, a post-apocalyptic hinterland, in a state of perpetual, desolate limbo. What caused this cataclysm is never fully elaborated on: there is no political subtext or eco-moralistic agenda at work. What we do know is that this existence is relentlessly bleak, resources and food are almost exhausted, and death is an inevitability that cannot arrive fast enough.

Very little here to laugh about, it may seem. However, Beckett’s dialogue, which mixes short, superficially mundane, perfunctory exchanges with bizarre anecdotes, sudden outbursts, incongruously silly gags and simple questions drenched in horrid significance, is full of comic potential. The shear strangeness of Beckett’s surreal scenario yields up humour, sometimes subtle, sometimes pitched at the level of a pantomime. The tangibility of this hinges on the chemistry between this darkly funny play’s two central protagonists, and Upton has happened upon a very successful alchemy in the pairing of Budge and Weaving.

Weaving’s Hamm is erratic, vicious, spiteful and crazed, but also saccharine, flamboyant, sentimental and heartbreakingly frail. When certain lines are repeated, they are deliberately delivered as a verbatim replica of the original, as if these words have been uttered this way, over and over, time and time again like a record stuck in a groove. Despite Beckett bestowing paralysis and blindness on this character, Weaving is a colossal presence extracting an astonishingly rich spectrum of emotional extremities to the point of bathos. While Budge’s Clov doesn’t cover anywhere near the same emotional ground, his simpering, knock-kneed, part-jester-part-Caliban delivery is deeply endearing and makes an ideal foil for Weaving’s more shaded and dominate performance.

Sarah Peirse and Bruce Spence

Peirse and Spence are also ideally partnered, and extract a tenderness and vulnerability from their portrayal of Hamm’s mutilated parents, literally crumbling before our eyes, that offer some of the most affecting moments of the evening.

Visually, Upton and designer Nick Schlieper have sailed dangerously close to defying the integrity of Beckett’s instructions, offering a soaring, mildewed, conical tower rather than a squat concrete box. The “small step-ladder” is substituted for a tall ladder; the “ashbins” are upgraded to large chemical-waste drums; unspecified pools of water and echoing drips dapple the walls. There is a feeling of general amplification about all of this production’s constituent elements, although done with respect and caution. Beckett’s rigorous stage directions are also surprisingly generous in the hands of Upton. He elaborates on the detailed descriptions of Clov’s daily routines to draw out the idiosyncratic ritual of these chores, repeated and repeated and repeated incalculable times before. This draws Upton’s Endgame out to almost two hours, but the pacing never feels like a trudge when delivered with such a brisk energy. As the only ambulatory character on stage, Budge makes full use of this ample backdrop to wring out a few more ounces of physical comedy from Clov’s shuffling, grovelling, resentful sidekick antics but ultimately the overriding despair of Beckett’s apocalypse can’t help but sober us.

Largely we cannot (and perhaps are not intended to) empathise with these characters, living out their surreal, toxic existence in a setting so desolate that no direct real-world allegory exists for us to compare it to. However Upton and his talented cast allow sudden, blinding flashes of relatable pathos to strike us from out of the gloom, delivering their surprising, devastating blow without warning. Nag’s pitiful, grief-stricken call for his wife, now dead in her oil-drum; Clov’s agonisingly intense praying, silent but raging for salvation that will never come; Hamm’s terrified epiphany that he is, at last, left all alone. They’re tiny moments in an epic theatrical architecture, but the immediacy and power of their impact reminds us of the dark underlying irony of this play: we have to laugh, or else we’ll cry.

Sydney Theatre Company present Endgame until May 9.