Samuel Beckett described Endgame, which he first wrote in French, as the play in his oeuvre that “least displeased” him. That’s an understatement by most people’s standards – and one especially hard to subscribe to for anyone lucky enough to see this production. The show sweeps the audience up in laughter, desolation and shared human frailty – a revelation for anyone tempted to relegate the Nobel Prize-winning author to the “too hard/too gloomy” division.
Director Alain Françon, who ran Paris’s Colline theatre until 2010, sticks faithfully to Beckett’s notoriously finicky stage orders (he once sued a theatre that went its own way). So we get the obligatory empty room, tiny windows and “grey light”, intensified by grey walls stretching up out of sight and covered in minute script. The set has the appearance of a shadowy mausoleum, its shrouded furniture evoking the life-in-death of Miss Havisham’s kingdom.
If ever a play hung on its actors, it is this one, and Françon’s stellar quartet captures the enigmatic, volatile nature of the roles. Serge Merlin’s blind Hamm is outstanding from the moment he is revealed in sunglasses and robes as a Gaddafi-lookalike. By turns a dandy autocrat playing with extravagant cadences of language, a nasally nasty tyrant and an exhausted fearful mortal, he carries off the peaks and depths of the role with total conviction.
If Hamm is all aerial hands, Jean-Quentin Châtelain’s hunched Clov is all feet. Earthbound with a brutish physique, this inarticulate sponge for life’s casual cruelties turns the tables with his threats of departure. His whirling dervish of emotional eruption is a tour de force.
When the lids come off Beckett’s famous dustbins, more than a hundred years of acting experience emerges in the form of Michel Robin (Nagg) and Isabelle Sadoyan (Nell). Robin’s opening shouts for gruel herald what is to come – the duo’s pitch-perfect empathy and timing as they serenely recall the past before the quiet descent to Nell’s death.
Françon’s final tableau – Hamm replacing his own face shroud, Clov immobile in hat and coat with back to the audience, a leaden shutter coming down in place of a curtain – has a terrible silent force that touches the depths of the human condition.