Sydney Theatre Company’s latest production places the raw humanness of Samuel Beckett’s tortured characters front and centre
April 8, 2015
Clov: “I use the words you taught me. If they don’t mean anything anymore, teach me others. Or let me be silent.”
Language – its imperfections, its tyranny – has long been a central preoccupation for Samuel Beckett. James Joyce’s biographer Richard Ellmann recalls Beckett in 1932 reading excerpts from Fritz Mauthner, the great Austrian linguistic philosopher, to a then near-blind Joyce. Both sought to resolve the problem of “Sprachskepsis” that had plagued the writers and philosophers of fin-de-siècle Vienna (including Ludwig Wittgenstein and Hugo von Hofmannsthal) – a concern that language as a means of expression was ultimately futile in encapsulating or communicating the concepts it sought to express.
And so, as the lights come up on the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Endgame (running concurrent to a competing production by Melbourne Theatre Company) we’re drawn into Beckett’s tortured world in which he wrestles with his own expression. The sparse set, a solitary room, evocative of the bottom of the well, bunker or castle dungeon, with dank water-stained walls and the echo of a nerve-fraying solitary drip. In Clov’s extended initial pantomime of seemingly meaningless gesture, routine and repetition, we’re pushed to the limits of tedium; but therein lies the battle for Beckett between silence and word.
More than just a formal experiment Endgame is also a searing examination of the human condition, and it is here that this production earns its plaudits. At the heart of Hugo Weaving’s commanding performance as Vladimir in STC’s 2013 production of Waiting for Godot was the human affection he and Richard Roxburgh conjured from Beckett’s infamous tramps. Beckett and love are not two words lightly thrown together, and yet it is the nuanced subtlety and deep emotional energy shared between Weaving as Hamm, and Tom Budge’s Clov that give this production its frisson.
An even darker and more constricted world than Vladimir and Estragon’s, in Endgame Weaving’s Hamm sits front and centre – an ailing tyrant – reminiscent of an ancient world Eastern potentate with toque and gaff for crown and sceptre, clinging to his vanity and worth as the world around him declines.
The emergence from a dustbin of one of Australian theatre and cinema’s most beloved faces, as Bruce Spence’s Nagg demands his supper, brings vitality to the stage, and he is expertly flanked by Sarah Peirse as Nell, whose wistful, elegiac calmness anchors the deep vulnerabilities and insecurities evinced by the male protagonists.
Weaving shines. Despite Hamm’s brutality towards his parents, he still inspires pathos through his flights of grandeur, his lugubrious grasp of loss and his fleeting moments of tenderness for Clov.
Yet it is Budge’s performance that ties this production together. The sheer pain of existence is etched deep into this physical performance, while his resilience and gallows humour provides the perfect foil to Hamm, redeeming him with his love, and allowing Weaving the full gamut of expression.
With Weaving also wearing the assistant director’s hat, it’s apparent the sensibility that he and director Andrew Upton brought to Waiting for Godot is back. And the very humanity of Beckett’s crippled characters is put at the forefront, inviting us all to reflect on the love, power and hurt that binds us together.
• Endgame is playing at the Sydney Theatre Company until 9 May