The difficulty any production of Endgame faces is that it’s all too easy to read the play as a trite metaphor, either for the end of the world or something else facile. Surmounting that difficulty requires a deep commitment which, I think, includes revisiting this early play via the illumination of his later plays–and few directors have really done this.
In Beckett’s later work the fact of the stage excludes the world itself. The short fiction and later plays are the most obvious distillation of this. Pieces like “Imagination Dead Imagine” and Not I are part of Beckett’s own endgame as an author, and the goal of that strategy is to purge the arts of literature and theater of their traditional trappings. Nothing outside of this. Nothing before this. Nothing after this. The outside world carries nothing. People carry everything. References to the past and future exist only because human beings cannot divest themselves of them.
In Endgame the rarefaction of his later works has only just begun. One can still sense in the text a temptation of metaphor. As a result I’ve seen productions of Endgame that were set in some vaguely post-apocalyptic landscape, wherein the the director stepped up onto the soapbox to lecture the audience about the hazards of nuclear war or ecological collapse. The play doesn’t sustain such interpretations for many reasons, but one subtle reason is that the text completely lacks dread. As it plays out, it is, essentially, set within the psyche of a near-total egoist.
The Ghost Light Theatricals production happily avoids such easy rhetoric, preferring to remain rough and abstract: a definite strength. Its weakness stems from a lack of strategy. As all good chess players know there is a difference between strategy and tactics. Tactics are what you do when there is something to do. Strategy is what you do when there is nothing to do. There isn’t a real game being played in this Endgame, not even by the most simple rules of finite and infinite games. There are simply commands and refusals. Within the production Hamm seems to hold all the cards, so to speak. I think this is problematic. The way I read it is that if anyone does, Clov holds the trump. After all, he can always leave.
If one accepts that proposition then Hamm’s dominion over Nagg and Nell is really only a means of kicking the dog. It might serve as an object lesson of exactly what Clov will become if he does not leave, but this connection is not clear in the performance. I wish it had been. There are many things I admire about the rough-hewn shape the production, but I would still prefer a certain tightening of the themes and a forcible decision about climax. I don’t think it has to be quite so glib as Lionel Abel’s insistence that the play must be read as a psychodrama about Beckett’s relationship with James Joyce, but I do think it needs to be decisive one way or the other.
The production has extremely fine performances. Craig Bradshaw’s Hamm is a phenomenal tour de force by an actor who obviously understands and loves Beckett. Watching him, it’s almost impossible not to love Beckett, too. Matthew Gilbert gives a contrasting performance. Where Mr. Bradshaw’s Hamm is desultory and seemingly has all the time in the world, Mr. Gilbert’s speech is sharp, imperative, even threatening. The rhythm that director Rob Raas-Bergquist has established between the two is excellent and is almost enough to make me overlook the other shortcomings of the production.
Blood Ensemble’s devised piece, NDGM, responds to Beckett’s Endgame by taking the game metaphor at face value. From my view, the piece begins with a particular set of rules upon which everyone agrees. Every interaction is framed as a game but with an immediately finite end. They are passing time, with no end in sight. The games are played here completely within themselves and do not lead into each other.
The problem with this approach is that it’s tactical rather than strategic. When there is something to do–play a game, trump someone’s ace, upstage another cast member–then the piece moves along just fine. But in getting from here to there as a matter of design the piece falls down frequently. As a unity, the piece lacks cumulative effect. Instead what remains is a series of isolated scenes with oddly punctuated moments between.
Furthermore the piece breaks its own rules about two-thirds the way through. Up to a point the rules of games involve two parties who agree upon the result. Then suddenly the agreement goes away. The stakes change. And thus so does the game. But to what aim I’m not sure. If any single person can arbitrarily change the rules of her existence and the stakes as well then the games are meaningless. As a metaphor for individuals perverting games toward their own personal power struggle it’s unwieldy. Power only exists when it is agreed upon–that is the reason for its existence. No agreement, no power. Here an entire group of people have allowed one person to run roughshod over the rules, even when they know that it will lead to their demise. It begs the question why the rules weren’t broken earlier.
Again, the production is almost rescued by a couple of fine performances, one from the always captivating Pearl Klein and a fine turn by Henry James Walker as Baile. But it’s not enough for me. The appearance of Clov from Endgame is supposed to be a catalytic moment that changes the rules for everyone. Once they are aware that the outside world is possible, then they cannot hold their stasis. But it’s too simple for, and in truth the play winds up being a story of a boy and girl running off into the sunset. It takes the metaphorical approach that is already so fatal to a production of Beckett and pushes the metaphor the wrong way: away from abstraction toward the concrete. As a play on its own, it’s unconvincing. As a response to Beckett, it is slight.