Daniel Brooks revisits an apocalyptic foursome in a disturbing, painful, and patchy production of Samuel Beckett's Endgame.
As Hamm—the blind, bleeding, and eternally-seated former tycoon at the end of the world in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame—points out to his servant Clov, as long as his father Nagg is crying, that means he’s still alive.
“Alive” is, of course, a bit of an overstatement for a man who lives inside a trash can, has no legs, and survives on pap (a mealy style of porridge) if he’s lucky, or by sucking on a biscuit if he’s not. The line gets one of many small, bitter laughs bursting reluctantly from the audience throughout the 100 minutes of purgatory now on at Soulpepper Theatre. But that’s entirely the point of Beckett’s 1957 sophomore full-length play—to show the humour in the most awful, anguished, melodramatic misery possible.
When director Daniel Brooks first tackled Endgame in 1999, it won that year’s Dora for Outstanding Production. Because we didn’t see that first acclaimed rendition, we obviously can’t compare the original to this new re-imagined version. But we can guess that the two main characters, Hamm (for a “ham” actor) and Clov (for “clown”), earned their comedic namesakes. If the goal of the current production was to “dig a little deeper,” as actor Diego Matamoros (Clov) said, then it may have inspired the very tragic, human portrayals of Hamm and Clov in the current staging—a fine choice, but one that perhaps doesn’t create the tone that Beckett intended.
Matamoros is the only actor reprising his role from the 1999 production, and his comfort in the role explains his ability to more ably play-up both the realistic and humourous sides of Clov, a man who yearns to escape this crumbling house but is unable to disobey the orders of his father-figure. Joseph Ziegler is an obvious choice to take over the role of Hamm, having mastered the performance of another fallen patriarch, Willy Loman, in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. And indeed, there are moments that immediately reminded us of that show (which closed last month). Miller is a realist though, and Beckett is an absurdist: Willy is supposed to draw tears, but Hamm isn’t supposed to be a character for us to cry over.
There are a few saving graces to be found in an old, decrepit married couple living in two separate trash cans. Hamm’s parents, Nell (Maria Vacratsis) and Nagg (Eric Peterson) pop up like two extremely pale and senile Oscar the Grouches. The banter between these two ugly gremlins (not as a slight against Vacratsis and Peterson, but an applaud to the makeup team and Victoria Wallace’s costumes) is simultaneously hilarious, frightening, sad, and heartwarming. There are hardly better roles imaginable for these two stage vets, allowing Peterson to tap into his epic comedic timing and deep-rooted wiriness, and Vacratsis to blend a rough appearance with pure sweetness.
Their time uncovered by lids flashes by, while the moments between Hamm and Clov seem to last an eternity—the fault of which is only half Beckett’s.