On the chessboard the rules go that when a checkmate is made, the players cease their play, not for want to try, but in seeing the endgame lose the momentum of desire, relenting to the futility of going on. It was over before it began, on earth as it is in heaven. With our head in the noose of eternity, the condemned are given a final universal rite: humankind is an anthology of last words.
Of all the eulogisers of the human condition, none in the 20th century are comparable to Samuel Beckett; in his reanimated religiosity, dismantled, irreverent intellect, and scorching emotions of his characters’ undisguised lives, Beckett’s plays transubstantiate theatre and culture to depths that still console and confound us. With a lurch of catharsis, the dawn-less waiting for Beckett on the New York stage is finished—nearly finished—with the Irish Repertory Theatre’s, bombarding, by-the-book resurrection of “Endgame,” directed by Ciarán O’Reilly, starring Bill Irwin, John Douglas Thompson, Joe Grifasi and Patrice Johnson Chevannes through April 9.
Rife with maudlin gallows humour, bizarre charm, and fissures of rage and irrationality, this revamp of “Endgame” is a decimating etude for the future of a doomed youth, and a rasping countdown to extinction.
In Beckett’s irreducible form, the “nothing, in particular,” which is both simple and impossible to describe, the play is staged in a room (design by Charlie Corcoran), one that is archetypically Beckett—a shambled space on the precipice of ruin, an opulent decay of hues neither in light nor shadow—yet with the faint resemblance of a fallout shelter for a certain time. An assumption is conveyed that the time is the end of days, or perhaps it isn’t, or it may be perceived to be for some. The room is inhabited by a three-generation family, seemingly deprived of the rapture of purpose: armchair-bound head-of-house Hamm (Thompson), his litter-bin-ridden parents Nell (Chevannes) and Nagg (Grifasi), and half-crippled son Clov (Irwin); a “bonny-once” quartet of characters persevered past their expiry, or approaching it.
There is no apparent atonement for the characters of the play, as they abuse, refuse, return and obey to no award or avail. In a plot that notoriously eschews absolutes, few truths of “Endgame” are certain; that the world as Hamm and Clov know it will not last, but does not end, and in the twilight of annihilation, all that is left to them is to suffer, speak, sleep, wake and repeat until they don’t.
As an exquisite swan song of senility, this production makes jest of the remnants of life, the fateful milestone of age after which no new growth comes and the shell of ourselves erode. Through grim gags and heart-gouging performances from this veteran cast, O’Reilly’s direction exposes anxieties about the disposal of an aging society, the decline of the body, and reverses the feeble and foolhardy for the funny, dragging audience enthusiasms along through this melancholic comedy. Amongst Thompson’s dominant tyranny as invalid patriarch Hamm, Irwin’s spewed indifference as Clov, and Chevannes and Grifasi’s mawkish affections as Nell and Nagg, the close-to-home portrayals are sure to unclench a few spiteful chuckles for this anomic modern family.
Obliteration has never had such clout, as this ensemble of masters wields the Beckettian classic with Olympian command. In the role of Nell, Patrice Johnson Chevannes plays radiantly with a strange magic, a phantasmagoric apparition of passion who weeps in vain for yesterday to heights Beckett might have admired. Joe Grifasi endears all as the forgotten, doting hound Nagg, whose depleting wit and aching pity garners laughs and remorse from the audience.
At the helm of this play, as Hamm, John Douglas Thompson is a colossus on this stage. With blinding invectiveness, in a bellicose voice that drools between ossified keening and howls of geriatric prattling, the huffing and puffing of drivel from the defiantly inept, Thompson emboldens the work exuberantly.
In a part well-ascribed to him, Bill Irwin is in his truest element as Clov. With signature physicality and uncanny contortions of expression, Irwin slithers through the marrow of Endgame like a caged creature, thumping to all perimeters of the stage for a place to hide. Even in paces of stasis, Irwin’s wilting gestures infests Clov’s every pulse with a spineless nihilism, and his determined self-loathing and measured beats of defeatism make his character the portrait of mortality; a man deprived of triumph. Irwin’s victory is his own.
While Beckett’s work is inherently undefined, the deliberate appearance of “Endgame” in the Irish Rep’s season may undoubtedly leave this production up to interpretations. In a century of war, pestilence, and natural catastrophe, this play infers a make-your-own-woe sort of motif.
In the underplot where Clov spies a boy in the outside world, at which Hamm balks, “If he exists, he’ll die there, or he’ll come here…” the moment gives rise to wonder, whether this cold clairvoyance is a generational send-off from the old to the young, deserting one wrathful death for another, or is this premonition merely the inescapable familial fear that we are all destined to share: that “one day,” as we near the edge of life, the dread of leaving our children to an inhospitable world?
“Endgame” is an indelible vanguard at Irish Rep, albeit a tinge academic, and the theatre’s recurrent lesson in the preeminence and persistence of Beckett. The play is getting on.
Open the door of your cell, and go.
For tickets, visit irishrep.org.