Cerebral “Endgame” confounds audiences at Berkshire Theatre Festival

Clov (David Chandler) and Hamm (Mark Corkins) in Endgame at the Berkshire Theatre Festival, July 6-24, 2010

Last night a brilliant production of the most peculiar play in the theatrical canon opened at the Berkshire Theatre Festival. but some members of a group that bought tickets were left totally puzzled. And pissed. “This play is too hard,” one of them said afterwards. If you are a regular theatre goer you know instantly that it’s likely a Samuel Beckett play, probably Endgame. And you would be right. Damn, it is a hard play to figure out. What we can say for sure is that this is not the play to offer to someone who has never been to a live theatre performance before, unless you want to be sure they never go again.

Endgame is a lot of things, but it is not an evening of escapist entertainment. Rather, it is a half-dream, half-reality look into the disturbed mind of a great playwright who exorcised his demons by writing about them. This play was written when Beckett hit 51, and had spent what no doubt felt like years sitting at the bedside of dying relatives, going through the peculiar (there’s that word again) rituals that the Irish of Ireland have built around the process of dying.

Nothing has changed.

Throughout the play there are allusions to it, and there’s no shortage of metaphors and similes about death and the futility of life in its ninety minute course. There are some chuckles, especially as the evening progresses and the audience becomes familiar with the strange rituals and relationships taking place.

It was written back when the “theatre of the absurd” (French: Théâtre de l’Absurde) was in full swing, and Beckett’s plays were mostly presented in impromptu spaces. Beckett wrote his works in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s and I am old enough to remember the latter period’s experimental theatre. It was cheap, puzzling and good fun. Absurdity was practiced by largely European playwrights whose work had several basic underpinnings. Essential to the form is the belief that because we live in a godless universe, life has no real meaning or purpose. What these works have in common is broad comedy set in a horrific or tragic situation where the characters are hopeless to change anything, and doomed to repeat meaningless actions, and with dialogue that is full of clichés, wordplay, and nonsense. Nobody does this better than Beckett. Others in that school (some more obtuse than others) include Albee, Genet, Ionesco, Pinter, and Stoppard.

In many ways Endgame is a parody of a play, the antithesis of escapism. You don’t go to see Beckett to escape, but rather find yourself trapped in another reality. Sort of.

Mark Corkins as Hamm is a petty despot in his realm.

The focal point of the current Endgame are Hamm and Clov, whose names are direct giveaways. Hamm, played by the brilliant Mark Corkins is indeed a role for an actor who goes over the top. And Clov, as played by David Chandler is the spice in a dominant-submissive relationship.

Let me try to give you a taste of what is involved. When the play begins, and after five minutes or so of fussing with windows and a ladder Clov says:

“Finished, It’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished. (Pause) Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there’s a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap. (Pause) I can’t be punished any more.”

He’s old, the days have passed one after another, his unhappiness is almost at an end.

Imagining oneself an actor, and re-reading those lines as if to recite them in a theatre, it becomes instantly apparent why actors love this playwright so much. Each phrase has endless possibilities. In the Mark Corkins version of Hamm he is alternately bombastic and pensive, while David Chandler’s Clov is both slow and methodical. In the play, Hamm can’t stand, and Clov can’t sit. Hamm is confined to a chair with wheels. Clov ritually takes him on chair rides around the room which is the extent of their world. At the end he returns the chair to the precise middle of the room from which Hamm rules and controls all. Totally dependent, he manages to boss everyone around. Absurd. Or is it? Think Howard Hughes.

Nagg (Randy Harrison) and Nell (Tanya Dougherty) as Hamm's discarded parents.

Adding a little color to the proceedings are Nell and Nagg, two elderly and apparently legless people confined for the duration of the play to their trash barrels. Talk about metaphors. Turns out they are the parents of Hamm, yet in their old and declining condition are treated more as nuisances than human beings. Randy Harrison plays Nagg, often forced to listen to the meanderings of Hamm, promised a sugar plum in return, only to have that promise broken. Perhaps Beckett the playwright is getting even for some of the broken promises of his own childhood.

As Nagg, Harrison is all face and hands, which are incredibly expressive, and constantly reaches out to touch Nell, who is in the adjoining barrel, struggling to hold on to life. Nell, played by Tanya Dougherty, is the only sweet thing in the play, the long suffering mother who must suffer some more before she has the good sense to expire before the play is finished. Or nearly finished. Whether she ends up in a heap the audience can’t tell. At the end of her life she hits the bottom of her barrel. Such is the bleak, black humor of Beckett.

The nightmarish aspects of the play include Clov’s frequent failed attempts to leave the room (and his final return after vowing to leave) and Hamm’s insistence on returning to the center of the room. Beckett’s characters are stuck in eternally static routines. They go through the “farce” of routine actions, as they call it, because there is nothing else to do while they wait for death.

C: “I can’t leave you,”

H: “And I can’t follow you,”

Beckett’s main point in the play, he often said, is in a line uttered by Nell: “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness”. And as a playwright, he was conscious of the audience. Clov turns his telescope on us as he seeks signs of life beyond the place they are all trapped in. Hamm makes showy references to his own acting.

C: What is there to keep us here?

H: The dialogue

Just as the characters cannot escape the room or themselves, trapped in their own indecision, neither can the audience escape their lives for a night of theatrical diversion. But these are exactly the reasons why you should see it.

Critics, professors, psychologists all try to read specific meanings and messages into Beckett’s plays, especially Endgame and Waiting for Godot. Each is right, but none is definitive. For all the words and actions and meanings, they are nothing more than a blank canvas with the suggestions of an outline, upon which you will seek and find your own interpretation. As with a dream, we all make of it what we can, and there is no right or wrong.

While the characters in Endgame view life as some sort of test to be endured – they are also frozen into inaction. So they pass the time with nonsense. One possible comparison is with contemporary everyday life. Back then it was routines they made up in the desolation of their location. Today we fill that same time with our addiction to television, or video games, or Facebook, none of which offer truly productive or a very meaningful way to spend our mortal time. “You’re on earth. There’s no cure for that.”

A director undertaking this play has little to do except focus on the dialogue, and the staging details. Eric Hill did a fine job of honing the action, the pace and the mood so that the evening flows inexorably from beginning to end. Beckett wrote down very precise stage directions, more than most playwrights, and the infamous Beckett estate does not suffer theatrical creativity gladly.

Three of the four actors are trapped in position.  In fact, Randy Harrison in a recent interview opined that Beckett was likely a bit of a sadist for forcing actors into such uncomfortable positions for the duration of the play. Casting the young Harrison and Dougherty to play the failing seniors was unusual, and done for the energy they bring to their parts. It’s not easy spending the evening on your knees in a trash can.

Clov (David Chandler) gets ready to "bottle" Nagg (Randy Harrison).

Slapping whiteface onto Harrison immediately erased any illusions of the actor who played Justin in Queer as Folk (now in endless reruns), and instead conjured up Marcel Marceau, the great French mime. With his trademark blond hair hidden under a nightcap, he was simply a contorted face and two shaky hands in search of a kiss, or a little pap, or a sugarplum. And when he received none of these, that same face melted into disappointment that broke your heart. This is the second Beckett role that Harrison has done, the first being his Lucky in Waiting for Godot two years ago at BTF.

He is currently playing secondary roles in Beckett’s works, and as time goes on one hopes to see him in the main roles as well. Perhaps that might be Krapp’s Last Tape, originally performed as a curtain raiser for Endgame in 1958. It would pair well with other short Beckett works. Whether this happens in the near future is speculation, but Randy Harrison is clearly on his way to becoming the foremost interpreter of Beckett of his generation.

That can certainly be said of Mark Corkins and David Chandler as well, Each brought unique interpretations to their role. Chandler as Clov played him as slow and forgetful, and totally dependent on Hamm to make his decisions for him, yet rebelling at the same time. And the modulation of Corkins voice and upper torso had to carry his character’s information to the audience. In the play he is blind, his eyes having turned white, and though he constantly cleans his glasses, he can not see. As Hamm, Corkins used brusque speech and grand gestures to drive his character home.

So, is this a good review or a bad review? Sorry to go all Beckett on you, but in the end, it’s up to you to decide. Do the details pique your curiosity, or make you say “no way”. If you are a regular theatre-goer, the answer might actually be yes, because this is about as good as Endgame ever gets. If you enjoy dominant-submissive relationships, this is also a must-see. People who gawk at carnage in car wrecks also get a kick out of how poorly Hamm’s parents are treated. And animal lovers will be glad that Hamm’s dog is just a shopworn stuffed animal missing one leg.

In fact the BTF production of Endgame will tell you all you need to know about Beckett and the theatre of the absurd. And once seen, you will agree with many of us that it is as interesting to talk about as to see.

Berkshire Theatre Festival presents Endgame, Written by Samuel Beckett, Directed by Eric Hill, Scenic Designer – Gary M. English, Costume Designer – Charles Schoonmaker, Lighting Designer – Dan Kotlowitz, Stage Manager – Laura Wilson. July 6-25, 2010 at the Unicorn Theatre, Stockbridge, MA. About ninety minutes, no intermission. Performance and ticket information: www.berkshiretheatre.org

One thought on “Cerebral “Endgame” confounds audiences at Berkshire Theatre Festival

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