Amid comic bewilderment and general lunacy, “something is taking its course” is the refrain uttered amusingly by Hamm in Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame.” This was the feeling at Zellerbach Playhouse as The Gate Theatre of Dublin brought this absurdist play to life. Not sure what mad sequence of remarks or daft monologue would follow, the audience knew one thing for certain: Something was taking its course. And this something was the tragedy of living sans happiness, which playwright Beckett captures so charmingly, and which was portrayed to near-perfection by the Irish troupe.
The set at Zellerbach consisted of a simple room with a window on either side. A chair populated the center, with Hamm seated in it and covered by a white sheet. Hamm is an aged, blind master who is unable to stand. Two garbage cans abutted each other downstage right, containing Nagg and Nell, Hamm’s very old parents. The play begins with Clov, Hamm’s loyal servant who is unable to sit, busying himself about the room.
From the moment of Clov’s entrance, it was clear that this would be a master class in the theater of the absurd. Actor Barry McGovern’s portrayal of Clov was wonderfully peculiar, making the audience snicker helplessly at his bizarre pursuits. From his surly physicality to his sad confusion, McGovern demonstrated all the essential qualities of an absurdist character: a miserable frustration with life and a comic inability to escape one’s predicament.
Still, it’s the interaction between characters, marked by bickering and confusion over menial matters, as well as copious witticisms, that gives body to an absurdist play. In this production of Endgame, Hamm (played by Owen Roe) and Clov displayed remarkable chemistry, reacting to each other in a way that encapsulated all the hilarity of their mutual dependence and suffering. As Clov grudgingly wheeled Hamm around the room, and the latter fretted over being placed exactly in its center, the audience burst into fits of laughter while also empathizing with the characters’ odd plight.
The physicality of the play is an essential component, but it was in dialogue that the actors truly excelled. Nagg and Nell in particular have some barmy exchanges, which were delivered beautifully by actors Des Keogh and Rosaleen Linehan (respectively). Popping out from inside their rubbish bins, they reminisce about Nagg’s marriage proposal, which involved Nell becoming so excited that she capsized on a boat. At other moments, Hamm derisively refers to Nagg as the “progenitor,” and Clov sticks his head into Nagg’s bin to ask if he will eat a biscuit. The banter bounced around in such engaging fashion that even when certain lines were repeated the underlying emotions sounded new.
If there was something to fault in this performance, it was that it fell into the trap of monotony inherent in the absurdist genre. It’s often the case with theatre of the absurd that the first hour or so is delightfully inane, but the latter parts are rather pensive, repetitive, and flat. This production was no different. Though the actors’ energy never subsided, their movement and interaction became familiar and static. The play had built up raucously, only to slowly fizzle to a halt.
All the while, however, something was taking its course, keeping the audience absorbed. Through all the madness and even the tedious bits towards the end, it was clear that the characters were searching for something, desperately trying to find relief from their unhappy lives. As Hamm so quaintly put it: “I’ve never been this dead; things are livening up!” Here a ripple of laughter was offset by empathetic refrain.