Has there ever been a more nihilistic play—or one that offers not even a smidgen of hope for the human condition and the survival of this planet—than Samuel Beckett’s Endgame?
Set in a bleak and airless room whose two small windows are so smeared with grime that practically no light is allowed to enter, the play is a prolonged wail of despair leavened only by an occasional flash of gallows humour. Inhabiting this decaying world are Hamm, a blind, wheelchair-bound despot, his shambling, gammy-legged slave Clov, without whom he would cease to function, and Nagg and Nell, Hamm’s eldery parents who symbolically reside in two separate garbage bins on the side of the stage.
As in all of Beckett’s plays, there is no plot. For 100 uninterrupted minutes, the play creates then wallows in its own claustrophobia as it explores the anxiety, the fears and the grim certainty of death in a cruel and uncertain universe.
And like all Beckett’s plays, there is no definitive explanation. It is all things to all people. Whether or not you agree with the playwright’s antipathetic take on the world, there is no denying the hypnotic spell he weaves through the rhythm and speech patterns of his dialogue and the extraordinary vividness of his characters, regardless of how doleful they may be.
Because Beckett’s particular sense of reality is unique in contemporary drama, his plays are more open to interpretation than almost any other playwright. As far as the performances are concerned, success or failure can be judged only by whether one’s own interpretation of the plays accords with the actor’s or director’s.
In Simon McBurney’s fine revival, the role of Hamm is played by Mark Rylance with a certain Shakesperean flourish and theatrical bravado vastly different from Michael Gambon’s more harrowing and introverted take on the role a few years ago. It can be argued that by drawing attention to himself, Rylance is in danger of violating a Beckettian essence, thus robbing the play of its essential poetic gloom. Equally it could be argued that Rylance’s actorly interpretation only enhances the despair at the core of the piece.
On the other hand, McBurney, who also plays Clov, is less showy than Lee Evans was opposite Gambon. It’s a matter of personal taste. I preferred Gambon to Rylance and McBurney to Evans.
No prevarication, though, about Tom Hickey’s quintessential Nagg and, best of all, Miriam Margolyes’s Nagg – a truly great Beckettian performance.