"No symbol where none intended", wrote Samuel Beckett in the notes to his early novel Watt, and it is a maxim both useful as a general approach to his work and repeated in several different forms in the programme notes to Endgame, Martin Duncan's final show as artistic director at Nottingham and a co-production with Weimar 1999 European City of Culture.
Surprisingly often, Beckett's words are more effective when delivered as naturally as is possible in the circumstances than they are when offered forth in agonised oratory. This is the tack which Duncan takes: even though it is obvious from Wolfgang Göbbel's monochrome set sans flats or backdrop, from bizarre remarks such as "[The time is still] Zero" and "There are no more bicycle wheels", from the very appearance of the blind, bleeding Hamm, the hobbling Clov and the legless Nagg and Nell in their dustbins, that the situation is not to be taken literally, yet characters' words and reactions – even when obviously role-playing – remain identifiably human.
Nowhere here is this more apparent than with Alistair McGowan's Clov. Considering him as I do to be not so much a comedian/impressionist who is now branching out into drama as an actor who got sidetracked for several years (I remember a fine Edinburgh Fringe performance from him at the turn of the decade in a modern "meeja" rewrite of Richard III), it is no surprise to find an ease and fluidity to his characterisation of the reluctant servant; McGowan refuses to elevate Clov's grumbles at being sent hirpling hither and yon into sonorous existential protests, and delivers the line "I couldn't guffaw again today" with a Northern directness that makes Beckett sound delightfully like Alan Bennett.
As Hamm, James Bolam similarly tries to be as natural as possible, although burdened with more obligations in the way of rhetoric and set pieces. Even the periodic lines which seem to serve as meta-commentary upon the play itself – lines like "I'm warming up for my last soliloquy" – are usually played down, to resist burdening an audience with the onus of seeking Significance with a capital S. Steven Beard and Darlene Johnson as Nagg and Nell seem almost sprightly, in so far as that is a meaningful term given their situation. In short, Duncan and his cast recognise that "performance" is something which Beckett characters do occasionally, not an artificial attitude demanded of actors throughout their characterisations. These 95 minutes refuse to wear the opacity of symbolism "where none intended".
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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