“You can’t really fuck around with Beckett”. This is the rueful admission of Will Felton, director of Endgame. The notoriously recalcitrant playwright took an extremely dim view of people taking even the tiniest liberties with his meticulously-scripted texts. He even took legal action against a 1984 production of the play for having the audacity to move the action to a disused subway station. The limitations placed on any production of Endgame are particularly intense- characters are lame, blind and confined to bins.
The risk is thus a play of impenetrable, interminable repetition. The cast told me that they had taken pains to find the human characters within the recursive dialogue, resisting the temptation to act in an artificial, stagey manner. Their desire, I am told, is to find the “viscerally human” story within the text. They do admirably well.
As Hamm, Luke Howarth takes centre stage like a mad frog emperor, eyes shrouded in blackened goggles and mouth flapping manically away. His gravelly tones bestow him with the necessary authority to order around his grovelling lackey Clov, played with an air of building and sullen resentment by Jamie Biondi. Though Beckett’s script centres around stasis, there is a sense of building tension between the two. Biondi perhaps handles this relationship better, keeping his emotions barely in check as he half-stomps, half-limps around the stage. Howarth’s unerring disdain for Clov lacks this nuance. As a spectacle, though, his performance is magnetic, a toadlike king ruling over his gammy-legged toady with supreme disdain.
Interestingly, the actors told me that this dynamic only evolved when they put down their scripts after the read-through and began to physically rehearse the play. Vocally, Hamm rules the roost- physically, Clov is God. This staging is not without its problems (cheers, Beckett). As the only character with the (limited) use of his legs, Biondi is forced for the sake of the narrative to be constantly on the move, ferrying props around as he orbits the squat and complacent Howarth. To make all this action and rearrangement of the set appear unforced is a challenge Biondi is yet to fully rise to. However, he gets bonus points for an excellent slapstick routine involving an errant flea in his pubes- a dilemma to which we can all relate.
The legless, half-deaf and near-blind duo of Nell (Dina Tsesarsky) and Nagg (Thomas Toles) bicker like Statler and Waldorf recuperating from a serious heroin overdose. Immense praise is due to the American Toles, not only for defying the transatlantic divide by mimicking Tsesarsky’s voice precisely, but also for his commendable attempt at an Irish brogue. This feat aside, he is the standout performer, rubber-faced and gently crazed. Nagg is Hamm’s father, and Toles’ performance is a wistfully faded and marginally more insane version of Howarth’s.
Tsesarsky, like Biondi, has the difficult task of taking the more understated role in her partnership and ensuring it is not drowned out by her husband’s mad orations. At the moment, the dominant personalities in the play are swamping the more submissive. Tsesarksy’s performance is something of a pale imitation of Toles’. Though this is in part a product of her character’s less effusive nature, she faces the challenge of establishing a distinct persona for herself within the confines of an oil-drum and a relatively passive presence within the script.
In the two scenes I see, the two pairs of characters do not really interact. Come 8th week at the Burton Taylor, it will be interesting to see how they come together to draw out the unerring sense of impending doom from Beckett’s richly ambiguous script. Endgame will almost certainly be excellent.
Endgame will be performed at 7:30pm at the BT Studio from Tuesday 3rd to Saturday 7th December. Tickets are available here