In 1999, when Soulpepper mounted its first, sensational production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, my dad and I went to see the show. I was still in high school at the time and I remember thinking, afterwards that Samuel Beckett’s mind must be a terrifying place. I also remember Diego Matamoros as Clov; I remember the bleak set and I remember Nagg in a wheelchair at the centre of the stage– I remember quite a lot, really. It is a remarkable theatre company that can produce a play so poignant it stays in our mind for over ten years.
It seems funny to talk about Samuel Beckett and fondness, but my dad and I had such a great time that night all those years ago, it was something we talked so much about, that we dare to do the unthinkable and equate a tender memory with Endgame. Since Soulpepper is remounting this classic production, my dad and I had the benefit of another great night out together and the benefit of another great conversation. It seemed only right to share this conversation by writing this review together, as a dialogue. After all, as Clov asks, what do we live for? Nagg, so truthfully answers, “[t]he dialogue.”
We went into Endgame asking four questions: (i) what would you tell your friends about this play; (ii) what do we think Beckett was trying to say with Endgame; (iii) how did the set design and the other technical choices support the play; and (iv) who do we think should go see this show? Below is a summary of our conversation.
1. What would you tell your friends about this play?
JH: Beckett’s landscape is a kind of existential wasteland. An environment stripped down to just what’s important in our lives–the questions we ask, the feelings we have, the desires we hold on to. Manifest in each afflicted character, Beckett demands his creatures reach for these last desires (a last kiss), explore these last emotions (the need for the tenderness of touch) and give in to these last motivations (leaving a brutal employer). Beckett demands these things however hopeless each of these actions proves, however painful. Clov, brilliantly brought to life again by Diego Matamoros, consoles himself in the opening moments of the play saying, “[i]t’s finished, it’s finished, it must be nearly finished.” Later, Nagg, beautifully imagined by Eric Peterson, reasons that if you’re crying, you’re living. As an audience member, the point of all the bleakness of Endgame doesn’t reveal itself to you all at once. It percolates; moments, images, vignettes linger and rise to the surface to beg reconsideration. More than a play, Endgame is a conversation piece. It will haunt you and force you into cerebral conversations best supported by a healthy glass of wine.
2. What do we think Beckett was trying to say with Endgame?
RH: “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness,” says Clov. This assertion gets to the heart of the play, and of Beckett’s philosophy. The set is a dreary gray closed room with one door and two small windows. Clov’s repetitive and mechanistic stage movements create an expectation of explosion in the audience. We want to shake him and yell, “Hey, remember to pick up your stool and take it with you!” The central character, Nagg, sits unmoving in a wheel chair rooted to the centre of the room. And Nagg’s parents, Nell and Hamm, live in a netherworld of garbage cans! All of these directorial choices reinforce this production’s central hypothesis: “…viewed as a whole, life is really a tragedy. But gone through in detail it has the character of a comedy” (Schopenhauer).
Both Beckett as a playwright, and this production reduce set, plot and character development to their barest essentials. In this way each word, gesture, movement becomes critical. Clov’s forgetful walking, Nagg’s compulsion to be at the ‘centre’ of the room, the opening of Nell and Hamm’s garbage cans, all contribute mightily to this tragicomedy. The audience finds itself laughing because moments of our tragic lives can only be endured with laughter, and perhaps with, as Jenn hints above, a healthy glass of scotch.
JH: I wonder if Beckett invites the audience to look at Endgame, at the space he’s imagined, and realize that no matter how terrible things become, we still yearn for a view of the sea, we still want to feel the warmth of sunlight on our skin, we still crave the comfort of human touch. The hopefulness of those desires seems to deny the possibility of full, true despair. Maybe Beckett is trying to say that it’s our hopefulness that makes us fools–comic characters in the tragedy of life. That is truly a desperate idea.
RH: How wonderful to be a fool for hopefulness! If I must be a fool, if I must see the possibility of happiness amidst the often drear minutiae of life, then let me be a fool for hope!
JH: Cheers, to that, Dad! I’ll choose to be that fool right next to you.
3. How did the set design, lighting, costumes and the other technical choices support the play?
JH: Julie Fox as Set Designer, Victoria Wallace as Costume Designer and Kevin Lamotte as Lighting Designer help translate the starkness of Endgame’s script into a palpable experience for the audience. This talented technical team successfully creates the jail that contains the lives of Beckett’s characters–a cell for each; a chair for Nagg, a kitchen for Clov, and a trash cans each for Nell and Hamm. Punctuated by stark lighting and a creaking curtain, this team effectively creates an environment that earns Beckett’s comment that, “[y]ou’re on earth? There’s no cure for that.”
4. Was this play worth your time? Who would you suggest attends (young people, older people, comedians…)?
RH: Beckett’s plays are not ‘easy’. Yet they ask essential questions about essential matters. Clov says, “I love order. I’m doing my best to create a little order”. And in quite a fundamental way, that is what we are all doing with our lives—creating a little order and meaning. Daniel Brooks’ remounting of his Dora Award winning 1999 production provides a fascinating insight into our ‘human predicament’. It has a power that stays with you as you leave the theatre. Clov says to Nagg, “There is no more pain killer”. And while this production may not kill the tragedies of our human existence, it does provide wonderful moments of artistry, humour and insight. Not bad for a night out at the theatre.
Image from soulpepper.ca.