Review by Cicely Binford
Samuel Beckett, without a doubt, is one of the greats of modern theatre – and so it must be with a fair bit of sangfroid that a director would take on one of his most important plays, Endgame. Andrew Ross, founding Artistic Director of BSSTC, returns to helm Endgame, the company’s third offering of the 2017 season, and if sangfroid is what it takes to pull off a successful production of the play, then that’s what Ross has coursing through his veins.
Perhaps the best approach to Beckett’s English version of Fin de partie is to forget the weight of its reputation and to clear one’s mind of precedent; to avoid overthinking its subtext, pass on heavy philosophy and psychoanalysis and focus purely on the playwright’s words and stage directions. Surely interpreters of Beckett’s play would do his work the most justice through a simple, direct and faithful approach to the text, resulting in an unpretentious, amusing, and even touching production. This is what Ross and his team have delivered.
The production serves the material well, though it’s not breaking new territory. I’m sure that for a director, the temptation is there to turn these four characters into buffoons and to calcify the absurdity into unnatural performances; mercifully Ross and his actors have grounded themselves by clinging to what is universally human within the play’s inhabitants. Each actor finds a way to live truthfully in this absurd, imaginary world, thereby guiding us towards its center and revealing the underlying truths that Beckett wants us to see. There is humour and sadness in equal measure in the lonely, frustrated manoeuvres of each personage, and every moment of conflict has an outcome that is both pitiable and laughable.
The greatest risk with the kind of dialogue that Beckett composes – short, sharp phrases volleyed between characters – is that the actors go on autopilot. It’s easy to fall into a rhythm and lose a sense of the present moment and the immediacy in each interchange. Though this is a play about stalemates and repetitive existence, we are still watching live theatre and so the audience needs to feel spontaneity in each utterance. Some sections briefly went into autopilot, but not to the detriment of the production overall.
At the centre of the piece sits Geoff Kelso as Hamm, the ‘king’ who cannot leave his throne, which is in this case a mucky old recliner-cum-wheelchair. Kelso’s upper body must therefore bear the burden of all his character’s physicality – and from my perspective he managed to fill the space from just the waist up. Though you couldn’t necessarily call his petulant Hamm ‘charming’ by any stretch, his childish villainy is certainly entertaining. Kelton Pell as his dutiful servant Clov is a delight as the Laurel to Kelso’s Hardy, and he delivers good physical and verbal punches throughout. In the two bins downstage are Nagg and Nell, played by George Shevtsov and Caroline McKenzie, doing some fine shoulders-up acting. Nell’s too-brief appearance is so vividly realised by McKenzie that we do regret her passing and feel her absence from subsequent scenes. Shevtsov is a striking, ghostly spectre, with his long white mane and painted-on pallor, and he delivers yet another inventive, interesting performance.
The company must be tightening its belt in terms of scenery this year – here we have no more than what is absolutely needed, designed by Tyler Hill. A simple textured wall with impossibly high windows, the aforementioned mucky chair and bins, and a sandpapery floor is all we need to define the physical space – and is there an allusion to the red desert – a barren, no man’s land absent from life-sustaining vegetation? Here there is truly no hope for these four but to return to dust.
Andrew Ross’s Endgame hits all the marks, feels grounded, assured and – dare I say it? – accessible.
Endgame runs until June 11 at the State Theatre Centre. For tickets and more information, visit the BSSTC website here.