The Very Popular Theatre company’s production of Beckett’s play is spirited and faithful.
Photo: Jessica Rixon.
There is an elegiac quality to the recent production of Endgame staged by The Very Popular Theatre Company at the Civic Theatre Playhouse in Newcastle.
Its original director was Professor Victor Emeljanow, a giant of the Newcastle theatre scene who ran the university’s drama faculty for more than two decades and founded The Very Popular Theatre Company with actor Daniel Stoddart. When Professor Emeljanow fell ill and passed away in 2018, his daughter Alexandra Emeljanow took over the role in her directorial debut.
Endgame, widely considered to be one of Beckett’s best works, was to be the emeritus professor’s final outing as a director. As far as swansongs go, it was no soft option.
And yet, Endgame, the sequel to Waiting for Godot, is a play that offers little scope for modern interpretation. Beckett imposes his strict stage directions from beyond the grave: his estate demands that the set must feature two windows and a door, for example. Directors dare defy Beckett’s will at their own peril; those who have invariably find themselves the subject of litigation.
The setting is a sparsely furnished concrete room that appears to be a kind of purgatory; a pitstop on the way to a post-apocalyptic netherworld. Beckett would likely approve of the industrial aesthetic of set designer Tom Bannerman’s set – including the regulation pair of off-centre windows.
Four characters appear in the one-act play: Clov, a long-suffering servant played by Ben Louttit, his master Hamm, played by Daniel Stoddart, and Hamm’s parents Nell and Nagg, played by Felicity Biggins ad Michael Smythe, who dwell in lidded dustbins.
Although the play was written in 1958, the sorry state of Nell and Nagg, Hamm’s ‘cursed progenitors’, makes an uncomfortably prescient statement about ageing in contemporary society. When Clov announces ‘there’s no more pap!’ to Nagg’s request for more food, replacing the lid of his drum to shut him in, it’s hard not to think of the stories of ill-treatment of the elderly that have emerged in the last 12 months in the Aged Care Royal Commission.
Occasional moments of black humour are welcome. The play opens with Clov laboriously moving a ladder from one window to the other in an almost slapstick mission to look outside the apartment. An exercise in pointlessness, the absurd episode might just sum up the futility of life. The disembodied Nell and Nagg also offer some comedic respite from their dustbins.
But it’s a bleak and miserable existence. Antagonism pings between Hamm, who is helpless but domineering, and the demoralised and subservient Clov.
And yet the pair remain linked by their mutual dependence. Hamm, blind and unable to stand, needs Clov, limping and unable to sit, for his basic care. Clov’s decision to stick around is less clear. ‘I’ve made you suffer too much,’ Hamm tells Clov. ‘Why don’t you kill me?’ Clov’s only answer is that doesn’t know the combination to the lock on the safe.
As the play progresses the power differential shifts, and Clov works up the courage to challenge Hamm and seriously contemplate leaving. As they await the final reckoning, the words of Sartre, Beckett’s contemporary, come to mind: hell is other people.
The Very Popular Theatre Company’s production of Endgame is a spirited and faithful rendition of Beckett’s famous play. Whether Endgame, limited as it is by Beckett’s heavy-handed directions, will continue to be relevant to modern audiences remains to be seen.
3.5 stars out of 5 ★★★☆
By Samuel Beckett
Presented by The Very Popular Theatre Company
Director: Alexandra Emeljanow
Cast: Daniel Stoddart, Ben Louttit, Michael Smythe, Felicity Biggins
Set design: Tom Bannerman
Costume design: Jennifer Ellicott
21-24 August 2019
Playhouse, Civic Theatre Newcastle NSW