Endgame: Check? mate

Soli Philander as Nagg and Antoinette Kellerman as Nell in Endgame. Photo: Oscar O’Ryan

You do not fuck with Samuel Beckett. There is a reason he gave detailed instructions on how his plays must be staged, and it is that he creates an enclosed world. Pull on any of the elements holding it together and it starts to unravel until all you have left is words falling off the stage, in meaningless disarray.

In the context of Beckett, master of meaninglessness, that statement appears contradictory, but if you’re constructing a play about the meaninglessness of existence, the depiction of the absurdity of being able to construct meaning when the construction itself is meaningless, is crucial. Leave anything out and meaning begins to intrude, for it is a very insistent human urge.

It is within Beckett’s world we need to work, not our own, if we are to discover it actually is our own, we just hadn’t known it yet.

Sylvaine Strike recognises this. In her director’s note for Endgame premiering at the Baxter Theatre, she talks of how “…the prescriptive perimeters became our sanctuary”, within which they discovered “the rules by which Endgame must be played”. And you couldn’t ask for better actors to play it with, each of them bringing vast professional experience to bear. None more so than Antoinette Kellerman and Andrew Buckland. And Soli. Soli Philander as Nagg in an ashbin. Rob van Vuuren as Clov.

I mean, yissus man.

Antoinette was astounding. As Nell she emerges from her rusted bin like a forlorn battered lily unfolding.

With her opening words “What is it, my pet? … Time for love?” she contains the only warm compassion in Beckett’s bleak landscape. For there is compassion elsewhere, between Hamm and Clov. But it is cold. A cold comfort of routine, of small expectations fulfilled. The expectation that Clov will respond to the whistle, Clov’s expectation that he will do what Hamm commands, however absurd.

Kellerman’s Nell is 61 short lines of reflected sun and spends the rest of the play silent and unseen, in her bin. Yet her rendition illuminates Hamm’s whimsical self-deception when, having got Clov to push him toward a window through which only the greyest of light shows, puts his face toward it and exclaims it “feels like a ray of sunshine”. Whereas the only sunshine, the only warmth, emanates from his mother who is closed in a  bin and whom he refuses to ever acknowledge. Is there something there about how unnatural life becomes without maternal warmth? It’s a question Antoinette’s performance raises, the dot beneath the curve completed by Buckland’s exposition.

If Beckett’s silences convey his message then Endgame is almost entirely Nell’s monologue. Her compassion in spite of her recognition of the reality of the situation arguably encapsulates the entire play. All else is but an evasion of her truth.

This is a Freudian reading. Perhaps. But the perverted refusal to recognise the mother sheds what light there is on the relationship between Hamm and Clov: this master-servant, father-(adopted) son thing.

Hamm. In his dressing gown, his round dark glasses and stiff toque on his head. Such a shit. But a lovable shit. A rogue. But also Buckland as a mean bastard. There are people like that. I’ve met them. In the Eastern Cape. Artists mostly. When he says “We’re getting on”, the cynicism is thick as treacle. The world is entirely inverted.

With Buckland as Hamm, Clov was a role destined for van Vuuren to fill. Rob studied under Andrew, and here sneeringly serves the master, ensconced and helpless and intolerable. He can limp and grimace at will, but is compelled to obey, to assist in the wilful torture of neglect inflicted upon Hamm’s progenitors. “Me sugar-plum!” is a phrase to be repeated in numerous households thanks to Philander’s impeccably ineffectual, pitiful Nagg. Soli was superb.

What gaps exist between Beckett’s instructions and his dialogue oozes with the richness of affect provided by this cast, squeezed by Sylvaine into a sublime production.

So I’m curious as to why, on an otherwise – excepting for one other thing – fantastic set by Patrick Curtis, there was no picture hanging near the door at front right and turned toward the wall? And as to why Clov did not take approximately six steps (for example) before remembering he had forgotten the ladder under window left before returning for it, it’s uncertain whether it was Clov being misdirected, or Rob forgetting to remember.*

Then that other thing about Patrick’s set: I loved its subterranean feel, its solidity, and those windows. Those windows are to steal. But it makes Hamm’s line as he strikes the wall with his knuckles, “Do you hear? Hollow bricks!” thud against plate metal. I also didn’t notice any blood on his handkerchief.

These are little things. Loose threads. The full scope of nitpicking criticism that, to be fair, is almost unfair to voice. Because Beckett’s world not only remained intact, the force of the play as a reconstruction of the human condition was brought to life. And in doing so, delivered Beckett’s gift: the impetus to gather the courage to stare the beast in the eye. To create our own beauty in the face of the full knowledge that it exists within a void, even if just to pass the time.

Endgame is at The Baxter Golden Arrow Studio until 25 August. Book here.

* Sylvaine Strike’s response: “To clarify your query: Beckett himself cut out the bloodied handkerchief, the exactness of Clov’s six steps and the the inverted portrait on the wall. All of these changes he made while directing Endgame 20 years after he penned it, at the Riverside theatre London and Schiller Theatre in Berlin. I must place emphasis on the fact that Rob certainly didn’t forget those steps… our version of Clov’s world is a tightly orchestrated choreography within which Rob is utterly disciplined, I feel that this may need addressing … as it is an incorrect assumption to suggest he is at fault or has been misdirected. There were also many other changes made by Beckett which I adopted, obviously impossible to list these in my director’s note, hence only the mention of his notebooks. The hollow bricks reference was enhanced by my personal choice to set the work in a dystopian space that suggests a lighthouse because of clear nautical references to the sea and earth.”

Director: Sylvaine Strike

Performers: Andrew Buckland as Hamm, Rob van Vuuren as Clov, Antoinette Kellerman as Nell, Soli Philander as Nagg

Set and lighting design: Patrick Curtis

Costumes: Birrie LeRoux

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