April 8, 2015
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Sydney Theatre Company
Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay, April 7
Grimmer than grim is Samuel Beckett’s Endgame and funny with it. Maintaining a grip on the despair in the humour and the humour in the despair is no mean feat.
Push the funny too hard and the ritualised gameplay of the chair-bound tyrant Hamm and his grovelling factotum Clov can begin to resemble that of other relationships: at best, you can find yourself thinking about Lear and his Fool or the thundering Sir and Norman in Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser. At worst, Monty Burns and Waylon Smithers.
However, lean too far towards unfathomable despair and Endgame becomes an ordeal. You may find yourself echoing Hamm’s oft-repeated request: “Is it not time for my painkiller?”
Andrew Upton’s grandly scaled production finds that balance more often than not: the humour is accessible, yet the cruelty in it stings; the pace is brisk without feeling pushed; it is bang-for-your-buck visually impressive (for $115 a seat, you deserve some eye candy, even if it’s of the bleakest stripe), and Hugo Weaving, the production’s drawcard, is in masterful form.
Designer Nick Schlieper conjures a towering conical structure out of Beckett’s flinty blueprint for this ante-room to oblivion. The look is post-industrial, with a nod to those enigmatic medieval round towers that dot the Irish countryside; perhaps, part lookout, part refuge of last resort.
Dripping water plops in the background somewhere (the least subtle of sound designer Max Lyandvert’s contributions). Ripples shimmer across the wall. Neither effect is specified in the text. No doubt the Beckett estate would disapprove, but you have to push the envelope where you can.
The “small stepladder” with which Beckett equips Clov in the published text is necessarily replaced by a very long one, which allows Clov breathtaking elevated views of “zero and zero and zero” while he and Hamm wait and wait and wait, in the vain hope that doing so will eventually “mount up to a life”. Like I said, pretty grim.
Beckett denies the actor of his Hamm the use of his eyes as well as legs, which makes the voice of vital importance. Weaving responds to the challenge magnificently with an impeccably enunciated repertoire of stagey growls, tempestuous barks, velvety grandiloquence and wheezy resignation. There’s plenty of salty old ham in this Hamm (at one point, his tongue makes a showstopping appearance and it’s all you can do not to give it a round of applause) but there’s humanity, too.
Tom Budge’s shaved-headed, mechanically jerky Clov operates in a fraction of that vocal range, but makes up for it with his agility (despite being bent into a question mark) and the finesse in his clowning. His powdering of an unwelcome flea in his pants is slapstick at its finest.
Playing decrepit parents Nell and Nagg Hamm, Sarah Peirse and Bruce Spence rear up from their rubbish bins like bewildered undead. Peirse’s voice is exquisite. Spence’s face, caked in cracked white, is priceless. Together, they strike the most touching notes in a production that walks you securely to the edge of the Beckettian abyss but never quite leans you over it.
Until May 9