A disembodied clock ticks in darkness; the playing space is bare, save for two blanket-covered shapes. The walls are black and the atmosphere oppressive. The floor is painted as a chessboard, a fitting image for a performance of Beckett’s avant-garde masterpiece, Endgame, acted in short, sharp bursts of dialogue and erratic movements as if the characters were indeed the pieces in a twisted game of chess.
Clov (played by Freddie Cambanakis) entered the playing space dressed in striped pyjamas, wearing a look that seems genuinely haunted. Whether the Drama Barn had an amazing makeup artist or the actor was actually exhausted I am not sure, but either way his physical presentation of Clov was flawless; he looked tired beyond words, dishevelled, and altogether a broken man. Likewise, when Hamm – the first of the shapeless lumps – is at last agonisingly revealed, his ponderous body language is wholly convincing and the actor (Joe Williams) remains staunchly in character throughout the entire performance. He stares at the audience through his vast saucer-like glasses, eerily opaque and yet reflective, as if instead of eyes he has two black mirrors. Throughout the performance Clov and Hamm complement each other unerringly, the darkly funny yet unnervingly cruel humour of Hamm antithetic to the misanthropic pragmatism of Clov.
Promising some comic relief from the depressingly absurd discourse of Hamm and Clov, Josh Welch’s goblin-esque portrayal of Nagg and Helen Peatfield’s portrayal of Nell, the bin-dwelling parents of Hamm, provide some light humour at their first appearance. But, in typical Beckettian style, as the performance progresses they express a tangible sense of melancholy, with Peatfield delivering the pivotal line: “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness” with unapologetic frankness and, upon her death, the strangled crying of Welch is genuinely distressing.
It is Williams’ portrayal of Hamm that really steals the show, however. Beckett demands absolute adherence to his stage directions in Endgame, thus leaving very little room for interpretation of setting and movements; it is the subtleties of character that actors must rely on to fuel their performance. Williams flits between brooding, melancholic wistfulness to bitter rage in the same breath – his constantly steepled fingers and distracted movements, all while sat down, work together to create a powerful characterisation. The portrayal embodies the stark insanity of Beckett’s play through the complex character of Hamm. This is not to say the other characters do not also utilise such subtleties; Cambanakis’ Clov is like a dead man walking with his stiff, stilted body language and his bitter yet restrained register, and Nagg and Nell are portrayed with a melancholic depth that is difficult to extract from the original Endgame text.
Altogether this performance of Endgame, notoriously challenging to act for its very absurdity, is incredibly well produced, directed and performed, obeying Beckett’s stage directions to the letter whilst remaining powerful, refreshing and, most impressively, unique.