Subtracting, Rather Than Adding: Sydney Theatre Company’s Endgame

Patrick Morrow and Dr. Mark Byron had detention outside

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Beckett’s writing of love is among the most beautiful in the canon. For all the talk of scabies and infections and impotence and catheters and limpness and pain, there’s real love in there. The utter poverty from which glimmering instances of gentleness and kindness and vulnerability arise makes them so precious. As such, I was confident that a night of all the fleas and garbage cans and spit-flecked rags and blindness of Endgame constituted a wonderful date.

Perhaps my partner didn’t. They pulled out at the last minute.

So I did the university equivalent of calling Mrs. Cousins “mum” and invited my teacher instead. Doctor Mark Byron taught me Beckett six months ago. His PhD comes from Cambridge. He has edited a collection of essays on Endgame, he has written on Beckett’s work in every form and genre, and is one of the most respected writers on modern drama in the country. As Mark buys me a glass of wine, we meet no less than four people that he has taught in his time at The University by the bar. One of them is now a resident director at the STC.

I read Endgame in year twelve, and forget how many ‘m’s are in Hamm.

On the way in, Byron explains to me that his memory of any text is as a table of intertextual citations. He knows specific lines are coming or going based on an imminent allusion to Milton, or Dante, or Shakespeare (and in Beckett, there are many. They are not always “direct citations”, Byron explains, but often “dull echoes” of the canon. This echo was a trait peculiar to English that ultimately drove Beckett to French) I find this funny and laugh, because I am stupid.

Though we were seated in the second row, as you enter the back of the theatre it is clear that this is to be an opulent production. Charged with staging a “Bare Interior. Grey Light. Left and right back, high up, two small windows, curtains drawn,” Upton and Weaving have built a cathedral. The set is a very beautiful monument to Beckett.

“It’s a problem in Beckett studies,” says Byron. “It’s difficult to know how to navigate the phenomenon of Saint Sam. He’s the patron saint of the capital ‘a’ Artist.” For all that Beckett wrote of the abundance in nothing, he also did little to dispel his own mythos. “It afforded him a degree of privacy,” Mark explains.

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The excess that most bothered me was the merciless pillaging of the script for shit jokes and double-entendres. While Clov’s physical performance is remarkable and rigorous and precise (reminiscent of, if not quite equal to, Luke Mullins’ extraordinary performance as Lucky in last year’s Godot) the attitude he takes to script is less elegant. It takes so much more effort to make laugh out loud jokes of lines such as “I haven’t made you suffer too much?” than it does to play them for the simple anxious questions that they are.

Byron tells me that his love of Beckett arises from the way that terrible scarcity begets artistic plenty. In Worstward Ho Beckett describes language as an “unlessenable least” – that all our words are a thin, almost insubstantial film that sits on the surface of the world as it is. He says that working with Beckett texts is a “frustrating” and “very cruel” process. “It’s something you have to work through… he induces a whole world of creativity through pain.”

It is not an ideal that this production works hard at. It offers handholds, and catharsis, and pathos, and it loses something for it. It feels compromised and sometimes overplayed. You don’t need to make concessions for the audience to appreciate the text. “These plays are robust enough to withstand whatever abuse is heaped upon them,” Mark says.

Hamm insisting that Clov stays for “The dialogue” is a very obvious wink to the audience.  So much of the script is a clear exercise in meta-theatre, and you don’t need to accompany each of Beckett’s attacks on the fourth wall with a shout of “watch us mess up this fourth wall!” and then have everyone mime pulling down a fourth wall.

Mark accounts for this performative excess with our location. At one row from the front, the comic excesses and pathos were “maybe more evident to us than the people in the back.” He goes further, and invokes the design again: “You can’t imagine doing tragic pathos in a cramped room. [The height] imbues an empyrean possibility in the set. The altitude is a visual citation of something beyond the play’s central existential point. The pathos and the openness may be related.”

Endgame has plenty of beautiful moments. The performances are all technically excellent, with Weaving an unsurprising standout. Becket is very good at what he does, and in instances where Upton trusts the profound poverty of the script, Hamm’s delivery of beautiful allusions like “get out of here and love one another” hits with the force of all the compassion in Christendom. It made me cry a bit.

I cried with my teacher. At a play. It was the least cool I had ever been.

Clov silently and stilly watching Hamm invert the epic monologues of Shakespeare’s protagonists is beautiful; Clov’s understated fear at the prospect of letting a rat starve to death is beautiful; the noble stoicism of Negg and Nell is beautiful; these are all very moving, proudly small moments. They are incredible.

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And then all the magic is horribly dashed across the bonnet of an Audi TT emblazoned with “ENDGAME” in the foyer.

It’s hard to divorce the theatrics either side of the show from the production itself. A sightless, chair-bound Weaving railing against darkness and emptiness for two hours jars horribly with the clinking of glasses and saccharine schmoozing of NIDA undergrads, eminent Australian theatre-makers, members of the press, and all the rest. Mark notices Bronywyn Bishop laughing in the foyer. She likes tobacco advertising, attempted to make burning the flag an offence, and passionately defends our vestigial appendage to the British monarchy. Why is Bronwyn Bishop at an art thing? Let alone this apparently big and important one?

“To do the two biggest plays back-to-back is a statement of intent,” begins Byron’s charitable reading of the circumstances, suggesting the STC wants to establish itself as a “serious player in the Beckett theatrical world.” The cohesion in the design of both last year’s Godot and this Endgame is really beautiful. Both are impressive renderings of physical poverty, and in the same way that Beckett once described Hamm and Clov as Vladimir and Estragon several years on from the ditch, this production of Endgame is an extension of the aesthetic universe of last year’s Godot.

I think the continuity implies more. In Endgame, Weaving has aged a lot and festered a little and reiterated his place as a mainstay in the STC repertoire. With the imminent exit of the Blanchetts and appointment of a new, suitably impressive, artistic director for the company, Weaving’s credit as assistant director begins to look less aesthetic and more functional and, perhaps, legitimising.

He is an excellent performer both in Endgame and elsewhere, but if this saturated treatment of Beckett is the mark of his directorial influence, it may be a disappointing succession. If his were to be an epoch of big names capably performing big roles, the STC under Weaving would become entrenched as a theatre by the sea for WASPs, beholden to their magnanimity.

Mark’s rebuff to my righteousness is fair: “Regardless of what you think of the politics of this, using personal relations to get the likes of Philip Seymour Hoffman over to do the work that he did here… that’s woven of the same fabric.”

Byron compares this production to the STC’s lavish, 2013 production of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera.  The musical is a seething rebuke of commercialism and excess, and especially of their intersection with art. Any “well-heeled” staging of Threepenny is a fuck you to its cast and crew and audience, especially any staged in the Roslyn-Bloody-Whatever Theatre (Mark’s improvisation). This is a theatre company with a cavernous ode to the Packers and an Endgame sports car and I don’t know how to resolve that dissonance satisfyingly.

I think Mark and I are agreed that this is a show worth seeing. The play is beautiful, and with less drive to pander to an opening night crowd, it would likely be gentler and more nuanced. But even if it isn’t, Mark makes another good point about the play and its author: “He belongs to everyone. He’s French, an Anglophone, and Irish, and a dramatist, a novelist, a poet, a non-fiction writer, a philosopher, a theologian, a painter, a pianist, the whole bit. It says a lot about the afterlife of the artist and his body of work.”

Let everyone take a piece, then. This is a fine production of a wonderful play, but the popularity of the STC and Hugo Weaving and the Beckett Estate make them institutions that are big enough and influential enough to do even better.

Next date is Mark’s pick and I think he wants to see The Avengers.

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Images courtesy of Lisa Tomasetti

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