Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Mar 31 – May 9, 2015
Playwright: Samuel Beckett
Director: Andrew Upton
Cast: Tom Budge, Sarah Peirse, Bruce Spence, Hugo Weaving
Images by Lisa Tomasetti
Theatre review (originally published at Auditorium Magazine)
On stage, artists can communicate ideas that they believe to be of interest to the wider community. They can also use it as grounds for exploration, to develop an improved understanding of the nature of their practice, or to investigate issues surrounding our lives. Stories are shared and concepts are illustrated, that may or may not connect with audiences but we never quite leave the theatre the same as when we first arrived. Samuel Beckett’s Endgame is light on narrative, but heavy on inventiveness, guided by a profound curiosity that brutally interrogates the fundamentals of existence. It is the most self-aware of texts, constantly drawing attention to the very act of writing, and also to the fragile artifice of its theatricality. If philosophy is its fixation, then any sense of conventionality must be removed from its structure, in order that everything may come under scrutiny, including basic notions of character and plot.
The play is both accessible and inaccessible. It challenges the way we read, and how we make sense, in the theatrical space, of language and signs, but it does not intend to alienate. Director Andrew Upton retains the integrity of Beckett’s words, sometimes impenetrable but always marvellous, and creates around them an intoxicating live experience that fascinates at every moment. Unreservedly intellectual, it is no surprise that one can be made to feel out of their depth at times, but the work’s density constantly morphs so that a switch in tone or subject inevitably occurs, and we become engaged again, only more thoroughly than ever, as our capacities gradually grow in their level of receptiveness. Upton’s voice increases in clarity over time, and the piece gains power accordingly.
Hugo Weaving is mesmeric as the hideous and hateful Hamm. Even in a wheelchair with legs bound and eyes obscured behind opaque spectacles, the star is irresistibly charismatic, and completely enthralling. Edith Piaf was said to have declared that she could sing the phone book and make it sound great. Similarly, Weaving captivates us with every word, even when we find our minds struggling to match the depth of what is being expounded. The extreme meticulousness of his approach seizes our attention, and the wild and unpredictable flourishes he builds into every scene and stanza is truly magnificent to witness. Endgame discusses the distinctions between meaninglessness and meaningfulness. Under Weaving’s spell, all that unfolds feels meaningful, and we are encouraged to seek a cerebral equivalent to the emotional sensations delivered to our gut. Also turning in a stunning performance is Tom Budge in the role of Clov, the voluntary slave who waits on Hamm for no straightforward reason. The actor opens the play in a wordless sequence, impressing us with his extraordinary physical expression. Part mime and part dance, the beauty of his execution shines in spite of the depressively ominous context he helps set up. Budge goes on to prove himself sensitive to the needs of black comedy, constantly toying with the delicate balance between morbidity and humour, much to our twisted delight. His dynamic range is quite exceptional, and the character he creates is fascinating from every perspective.
The single-act play does not require nor permit much flamboyance with design, but there is no shortage of creativity on show here. Nick Schlieper’s set is a dungeon built so horrifying, it could only have been dreamt up by a healthy dose of genius irony. The generous Roslyn Packer stage is expertly curtailed to evoke the oppressiveness explored in Beckett’s writing, and that shrunken performance space provides amplification for the performance energies so brilliantly harnessed. Lights also by Schlieper, and sound by Max Lyandvert are restrained but unquestionably satisfying, always in subtle control over our sensory reactions. Renée Mulder flexes her costume design muscles within the narrow demands of the piece, embellishing characters with objects and textures of interest and creating extraordinary colours out of a dark, sombre vista.
Difficult texts must exist, or our artistic landscape is worth nothing. If everything is within one’s grasp, one ceases to evolve. Endgame is about two hours long, but it contains wisdom from entire lifetimes by several outstanding minds. This production seduces with entertaining touches and intriguing elements, then presents life’s big questions in rarely articulated ways. If its propositions are unfamiliar, revisiting them seems necessary, like a good book that engages and bewilders, it tempts you at its end, to return to the start for another bout.