L&S America Online   Subscribe
Home Lighting Sound AmericaIndustry NewsLSA DirectoryEventsContacts

-Today's News

-Last 7 Days

-Business News + Industry Support

-People News

-Product News

-Theatre in Review

-Subscribe to News

-Subscribe to LSA Mag

-News Archive

-Media Kit

-A Theatre Project Book

Theatre in Review: Endgame (Irish Repertory Theatre)

Bill Irwin, John Douglas Thompson. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Bill Irwin and John Douglas Thompson bring to Endgame something I've never known it to have: grandeur. It's a seedy grandeur, to be sure, but impressive for all of that. Thanks to them, Samuel Beckett's end-of-the-world exercise in domination and submission takes on an urgency and a savage wit that previous productions have, in my experience, lacked. The pairing of a great classical actor with a wickedly inventive clown yields a kind of existential vaudeville, a knockabout comedy producing laughter with a death rattle inside it. To my mind, is the first unmissable production of 2023.

In Endgame, Beckett populates the stage with four profoundly damaged survivors in a world that is withering away yet can't quite expire. Thompson is Hamm, the august, crippled ruler of a crumbling, one-room kingdom. First seen with a veil over his head, looking oddly like the Elephant Man, he is a monarch without portfolio, blind and trapped in his chair, raging against his circumstances, and repeatedly calling for the painkiller that never arrives. "Can there be misery loftier than mine?" he declares, his fury broken up by a yawn.

Indeed, for all his power, Hamm is utterly helpless. Commanding to be taken "for a little turn," he is rolled around the tiny room, directing the trip as if it were a grand tour and, on return, agonizing to the last inch over the placement of his chair. Wheeled over to a tiny window that reveals nothing more than a gray miasma, he exclaims "That's what I call light!" Wielding an enormous gaff, he pushes the floor with it, trying to gain a purchase that will let him move under his own power. Like everything else, the effort is futile. "The whole place stinks of corpses," he howls in impotent rage, all too aware that he is part of the general decay.

Thompson so rarely gets a chance to play comedy -- not even Beckett's brand of whistling-past-the-graveyard levity -- that his performance is a revelation of sorts, whether loftily informing his servant, Clov, "You pollute the air" or suggesting that they have "a good guffaw together." He applies his classical technique, especially his finely tuned vocal instrument, to each of Beckett's diamond-hard aperçus; listen to what he does with a line like, "Absent always. It all happened without me. I don't know what happened." He has the oratory power of a Lear in the body of a clown, roaring over the tiniest details of an existence that has shrunk to the vanishing point.

Thompson also deftly plays straight man to Irwin's Clov, an inept factotum busy at accomplishing nothing. Moving across the stage like a stork with a neurodegenerative disease, he grandly opens a tattered curtain to reveal...a brick wall. Climbing a ladder is an exercise in peril as he struggles to find a place for his legs without tipping over. Instructed to cogitate, he assumes a pose out of Rodin, to little effect; the strain is hilariously obvious. He's a fool, a serf, a study in servility, and yet, suddenly barking out a line with startling venom, he can radiate an unpredictable violence.

Irwin also engages with Thompson in a kind of music hall crosstalk filled with hints of rebellion. "Why don't you kill me?" Hamm asks. "I don't know the combination of the cupboard," Clov replies, subtly implying that the day is coming. When Hamm wonders, with a touch of hope and/or fear, "We're not beginning to...to...mean something?" Clov, barking out a laugh, puts paid to that notion: "Mean something! You and I, mean something! Ah that's a good one!" Queried if he "ever had an instant of happiness," Clov promptly replies, "Not to my knowledge," as if noting that, yes, of course, it's a bright day. In truth, Clov may depend on these exchanges. "What is there to keep me here?" he demands. "The dialogue," Hamm notes.

If the title bout, an unending, circular power struggle, is the main attraction, there is plenty of amusement in the undercard of Joe Grifasi and Patrice Johnson Chevannes as Nagg and Nell, Hamm's desiccated parents, both consigned to living in trash cans. Grifasi is doddering and guileless, reduced to haggling with his son for a single sugar plum and begging his spouse to reach across the distance between them and scratch his back. (It's a no-go, as is their futile attempt at kissing.) The look on his face when denied a treat is uncomprehending, a child encountering cruelty for the first time. Chevannes positively caresses her lines, noting, luxuriantly that "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness, I grant you that," and, reminded of a past kindness, striking a pose like a 19th-century tragedy queen and lamenting, "Ah, yesterday!"

Under Ciarán O'Reilly's direction, all four actors apply their considerable gifts to illuminating a famously difficult text, teasing out every bit of humor without missing a beat or a stray thought. O'Reilly has also overseen a gloriously dilapidated production design. Charlie Corcoran's set is a thing of crumbling plaster, dirt, and mold, with two tiny windows offering a peek at the nothingness outside. The space is lit with clinical acuity by Michael Gottlieb, who switches to a sinister footlight look for Hamm's big arias. Orla Long's filthy-looking costumes are masterful studies in distressing fabrics for the stage. Sound designer M. Florian Staab's original music bookends the action on a sumptuously orchestral note.

O'Reilly asserts in his program note that, in a world overrun with murderous conflicts and climate change, Endgame feels more relevant than ever, an argument that is surely irrefutable. But never forget that, at his bleakest, Beckett can be so very, very funny. At times like these, his insistence that life is a bitter joke can leave one feeling oddly cheerful. Yes, the world is so awful, but you have to laugh because, really, what else can you do? It's a paradox, to be sure, one that is illuminated supremely well in this superb production. --David Barbour

(2 February 2023)

E-mail this story to a friendE-mail this story to a friend

LSA Goes Digital - Check It Out!

  Follow us on Twitter  Follow us on Facebook