We’re on earth, is there a cure for that?

Keith Gallasch, Interview: Andrew Upton, Endgame

Tom Budge, Hugo Weaving in rehearsal, Endgame

Tom Budge, Hugo Weaving in rehearsal, Endgame

Tom Budge, Hugo Weaving in rehearsal, Endgame

The phone connection between LA and Sydney is bad, clipping the ends off Andrew Upton’s words, breaking up sentences and scoring the distant vocal with layers of crackling static, as if a solar flare was about to fry everything from communication networks to supermarket cash registers and home computers. Very apt for a discussion of Samuel Beckett’s blackly comic and emotionally unnerving Endgame (1957) with its post-apocalyptic scenario—one room, a master, Hamm, and servant, Clov, the master’s parents (Nagg and Nell) in rubbish bins, no provisions, seeds that won’t sprout and a grey world outside with few if any signs of life. Hamm declares, “You’re on earth, there’s no cure for that.”

Upton, shortly to direct Endgame for the Sydney Theatre Company, tells me that he and Hugo Weaving, who played Vladimir superbly in the director’s production of Waiting for Godot for the STC in 2013, relished the experience, impelling them to take on Endgame. They see it, says Upton, “as a kind of shadow play to Godot, picking up on the Pozzo and Lucky dynamic and exploring it in more detail and in a very different way, in the form of Hamm and Clov.” Their relationship is very complex. Hamm’s power over Clov is diminishing; he seeks compassion from Clov while persistently abusing him, and both recognise their co-dependency, wishing it, and sometimes their lives, gone.

Upton recalls, “One of the things that surprised us was the warmth inside Godot. There’s less of it in Endgame. We’re not looking for warmth in a saccharine sense but what’s so particular to Beckett, a kind of love he has at the heart of his work, flawed though we humans are.” That will be no easy task; the dialogue overflows with deadly one-liners, bitter altercations and sudden changes to what Upton calls “the gradient of power.” But even though “power is all that is left” to the blind, incapacitated Hamm—exercised verbally—and Clov—will he carry out his threat to leave?—there are haunting exchanges about caring in particular between Nagg and Nell and Hamm and Nagg—in terms of childhood fears and old-age helplessness. Hamm wants to know if Clov loves him, asks for a kiss, wonders if it’s compassion that keeps Clov with him. Upton describes the play as “a beautiful microscopic study” of power and relationships.

We turn to time in Endgame; the sense of it is quite different from Waiting for Godot where the protagonists suffer it or try to fill it in. In Endgame, there’s a contrasting sense of busy-ness, despite the characters bewailing the tedium of their lives. Upton says, “There’s a lot more pressure, a sense that this is the last day, even if it’s not clear whether or not Clov will leave. Time in Endgame unfolds in a less loopy, floppy way.”

Andrew Upton and actors in rehearsal Endgame

Andrew Upton and actors in rehearsal Endgame

Andrew Upton and actors in rehearsal Endgame

I’ve always felt Endgame to be more palpably realistic than Godot, making it a very different play. Upton thinks that “there are those who see Beckett through the false lens of Theatre of the Absurd. These people in Endgame are in very real circumstances; they’re just not the circumstances we know; they’re very real to them.” He adds emphatically, pointing to the difference between reading a play and producing it, it has to be real for the actors: “Giving in to each moment and being alive in each, however abstract it may be, needs a really concrete centre for the acting. At one level Beckett’s writing is poetry, at another it’s crazy naturalism—it’s a beautiful theatricality that Beckett sets up.”

Hamm and Clov could be living in a post-apocalyptic world. Alternatively, they could have withdrawn themselves from a world that they did not find accommodating. Hamm recalls visiting a mad engraver and painter in an asylum “before the end of the world.” When the artist looks out the window he sees only ashes. Hamm comments, “the case is not so unusual.” Upton thinks, “it’s a point at which an abstract space, like the end of the world, can become really clear for an audience, about what you’re ignoring or in denial of, in many different ways—that’s the power of the play. It’s one of those plays that will always be timely, but I feel it’s very timely for us because it’s about power and leadership, and it alludes to environmental degradation.”

With designer Nick Schlieper, Upton sees the world of Endgame as a vertical space, as opposed to Godot’s landscape horizontality. “We’re using the verticality of the Sydney Theatre to capture the narrowness of the world the characters inhabit, like a chimney almost. They’ve definitely made a home out of it although it’s not their home, rather an abandoned industrial space. With the height there’ll be a lot of business with the ladder.” (Ordered by Hamm, the limping Clov repeatedly climbs to either of the two high windows to report on the state of the world—he sees only flat sea through one and land through the other. Not ash, but it might as well be). The design’s verticality of course corresponds with the power theme.

As per the insistence of the Beckett estate there’ll be no music (“the language is already so musical!” says Upton) but the writer’s spare, meticulous stage directions will be honoured and Max Lyandvert’s sound design will evoke a world outside, “some sense of the ocean stretching away.”

Finally, Upton says, “we want the characters to be a real family,” not a quirky Wes Anderson family per se, but one inspired by its kind of eccentricity—for which there is fuel aplenty in Endgame.

Sydney Theatre Company, Endgame, writer Samuel Beckett, director Andrew Upton, performers Robert Menzies, Sarah Peirse, Bruce Spence, Hugo Weaving, designer Nick Schlieper, Sydney Theatre, 31 March-9 May. Upton’s production of Waiting for Godot tours to the International Beckett Festival in London this year.

RealTime issue #125 Feb-March 2015 pg. 37

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

23 February 2015