Fail again. Fail better.
That’s the Beckettian bumper-sticker slogan, and perhaps what director Daniel Brooks was thinking about when he decided to return to Endgame at Soulpepper 13 years after he first mounted it with the classical company. This isn’t a remount; it’s a rethink. Or a deeper think.
Of course, in 1999, Brooks’s first stab at Samuel Beckett’s 1957 four-hander won best production of the year at the Doras, Toronto’s theatre awards. So the meticulous director – who spent many of the intervening years running the Necessary Angel company, which now finds itself in its own rudderless Beckett-style purgatory – must have different standards of success and failure than the rest of us.
Endgame is a comedy of the apocalypse. Hamm (Joseph Ziegler) sits upon his throne, an armchair mounted on rusty castors, in the centre of a concrete bunker that is itself buried between a lifeless sea and dead desert. He’s blind, bleeding and belligerent – and the play tracks one final day of his wasting away. Another appropriate title might be Exit the King, but perhaps Beckett’s fellow absurdist Ionesco already had dibs on that one.
Hamm is attended by Clov, who sometimes seems to be a servant, sometimes a son. In the performance of Diego Matamoros, the only survivor of Brooks’s previous production, his court-jester or clown qualities rise to the surface – he even looks like a direct descendent of the comedia character Pierrot, dressed in the baggy, off-white costume designed by Victoria Wallace.
Meanwhile, over in the corner of the bunker, two other survivors of whatever disaster has befallen humankind live side by side in his-and-hers garbage cans – Hamm’s parents, Nagg and Nell.
Beckett was less a dramatist than a poet and sculptor who happened to work in the medium of theatre. His career followed the trajectory of many who worked in the east-end tankhouses of Toronto 100 years before Soulpepper built a theatre in one of them; that is to say, he got better and better at distillation. His later, shorter plays are his masterpieces; there comes a moment in all of his early “full-length” plays such as Endgame, Waiting for Godot and Happy Days where you completely get the point, but Beckett isn’t done making it yet.
In Endgame, this happens for me about three-quarters of the way through, when Clov says, peering into Nagg’s bin, “He’s crying.” Responds Hamm, “Then he’s living.”
What there is to hold onto at that point are the performances. As Hamm and Clov, Ziegler and Matamoros are pretty darn perfect at chiselling out this Beckettian double-act of father and son, king and pawn.
But perfection isn’t always ideal in the theatre. In this case, I never lost the feeling that Hamm and Clov were being moved about the board by a chessmaster – not God, who is explicitly dead in the play, but Beckett and, to a lesser degree, Brooks.
As Nagg, however, Eric Peterson is his usual uncontrollable self, in this case the life force channelled into a mad muppet. From the first moment he pops his straggly head out of his trash can, his is a riveting presence – and, despite his living quarters, he’s less Oscar than a feral Grover.
All animal appetite and optimism, Peterson’s Nagg has a wonderful willingness to chase the ball no matter how many times you only pretend to throw it. His eyes and snout are ever-hungry rather than starved. He’s unbearably touching too in his randy-puppy love for Nell, the sad-sack wife who lives in the adjoining suite and is played by Maria Vacratsis’s face and hands as a depressed Mrs. Potato Head.
Peterson’s astonishingly vital performance makes Nagg the hero, an unusual but interesting result. The rest is an immaculate production of a play that, though I love it, can feel like a trip to a museum. Here, it is undeniably gorgeous to cast an eye on, in the beautiful decrepitude of Julie Fox’s grey-scale set and Wallace’s shredded costumes, under the melancholy lighting of Kevin Lamotte. (Richard Feren’s sound – echoes and distant winds – calls attention to itself, but then so does Beckett’s writing.)
Brooks’s most startling choice – and I’ll put in a spoiler alert here, for those who enjoy being startled – is to deny the audience a bow at the end. Instead, the creaky curtain rises to show us the final tableau of Hamm under his bloody cloth with a hunched-over Clov watching. The implication is that the theatre curtain is Hamm’s bloody standard writ large, and we too have gone blind, with one final image etched in our minds forever. Scary: We think, therefore we Hamm. I’d rather live like Nagg, stupidly, gloriously, for the moment.