John Shand talks to STC artistic director Andrew Upton about his forthcoming production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, starring Hugo Weaving as Hamm, Tom Budge as Clov, Bruce Spence as Nagg and Sarah Peirse as Nell.
JS: The current fashion of not just reinterpreting but reinventing the classics is denied to the director of Beckett. How different is your approach when you have less elbow room, as it were?
AU: “It’s so funny you should say that, because we were just having this conversation [in the rehearsal room]… There’s so much room inside the little bit he gives you, and I think it’s definitely one of the powers of the work that they are so open and they’re so full of room. I think that if you were able to push them around with big, strong visual additions perhaps it would all get a bit rococo… I get the feeling that this writing is quite unique in that yes, it’s limited; yes, it’s focused; yes, it’s pared right back: but my God, it’s full of opportunity.”
You mean in the way an actor delivers a specific line?
“Yeah, and it seems to me that one of the things he was trying to find as a writer was a way to create a genuinely open text. So I think what he found was that the more he could limit the parameters, then the harder he had to work inside the text. What we’re finding with Endgame between Hamm and Clov is the infinite openness that there is in [the question of] ‘Will Clov finish him? Will he leave?’ They seem like ‘yes’ and ‘no’ questions, and yet there are gradations of ‘yes’ that should be explored, and hopefully we will explore in the production.”
Obviously Beckett has been extraordinarily precise in his stage directions. Do you treat them as law, or just a starting point?
“There’s a great line: ‘He takes six steps’, and then in brackets ‘for example’, close brackets. And I think that ‘for example’ has the wry wink in it that you need that says, ‘Look, try this, but obviously what we’re after here is precision’. Because no good comedy, particularly no good physical comedy comes without physical precision. We definitely found this with Godot. Because Godot started so strangely, and I was caretaking the production for the first two weeks, I thought the best way to do that was to just let Beckett direct it, essentially. So we agreed as a group to spend two weeks while waiting for [intended director] Tamas [Ascher] – who never showed up! – just doing the stage-directions. That keeps it relatively neutral, if you like, and that was liberating. So we’re doing the same thing here: we’re following the stage directions, and, as they did with Godot, some of them shift, but essentially they put you in really great places.
Endgame has been described as perhaps the bleakest play ever written, but in some ways I find it less bleak than Godot. The characters all have memories that console them to some degree, for instance.
“Yes, they do!”
How do you see the bleakness quotient between the two plays?
“I don’t think Godot’s bleak at all. I think Godot’s full of life and warmth and joy. I mean we’re all broken-hearted by the time we leave this planet. In fact if you’re not you haven’t been able to live long enough, and that’s a tragedy in itself! So the broken heart, the despair and the horror of death: these abide. If that’s the given, then inside that there is [the question of] what do you do? In Endgame we’re finding this incredible need to be with each other, and also a desire for that to be mutual. Even in the crazy dysfunctional combination of Hamm and Clov – which is very similar to Lucky and Pozzo, I think – there’s still some funny little thing that flickers between them that keeps them together. And that, to me, in the given circumstances of despair, melancholy, broken hearts and death, is the sort of thing that keeps you alive. So I find both plays quite warm. The bravery of Beckett to ask us to look these facts of existence in the eye.
Obviously the bleakness is mitigated by the relentless humour, too.
“Yeah. He loved silliness, and I think silliness obviously gets tiresome if it doesn’t add up to much, but it does add up to much with him – and silliness is one of the things that keeps us sane, I reckon!
Do you have a favourite between the two?
“I had read Godot 50 times in my 20s. I loved it! Then I had not read it again, and when Tamas and I talked about it during [STC’s Ascher-directed production of] Uncle Vanya I never re-read it. I knew the play, I loved the play, and I thought, ‘I’ve got plenty of other things to read as the artistic director of programming. Tamas is going to do it, so I’ll let him re-read it.’ So when I walked in there on Day One and heard it read by the actors that was the first time I’d heard it read for probably 15 or 20 years. My point is that it was such a fresh surprise to me, because it had turned up in my life again so intimately, having to work on it so closely, that I think it’ll probably always be my favourite play – and I don’t mean just of his! It was a gift of a cast, so to hear it read so beautifully… But I am loving Endgame. I really love his writing.”
Did directing Godot better prepare you for doing Endgame in any specific way?
“Definitely. Knowing that there are rhythmic building blocks and comic building buildings inside Beckett – learning that through Godot, intimately – transports to the next play, so that’s been beautiful. One of the great things I found, which was really coming at it through Tamas’s eyes and Vanya, is that I think there’s more similarity between Samuel Beckett’s writing and Chekov than Ionesco. There is so many specific naturalistic details in the moments of these people’s lives that actually give the plays this incredible resonance that he’s capable of building. That’s how he builds this castle in the air: it’s built in reality, and that was an understanding that I could only have come to through the lens of having worked on Godot.
So tell about what you were looking for in casting the four roles?
“Rob Menzies was playing Clov, and then because of a physical thing he couldn’t, which is a great pity. But Tom Budge is now playing Clov. Tom’s younger, so that actually makes more sense of that family image that is at the centre of Endgame, I think. Godot is kind of like a play about peers, and Endgame’s a play about family. When I cast Rob originally everyone was old, so it was like years have passed, and I loved that, because that sort of made the drama of the family further away. What’s been interesting with Tom is, because he’s younger and the energy’s younger, it brings in that sort of scratchiness between father and son. Yes, much routine has passed, yes, much time has passed, but there’s much more ‘present’ in it, which has been interesting.
“But otherwise what I felt with Bruce [Spence] and Sarah Peirse and Tom, even though he’s young, and Hugo [Weaving], and obviously Rob was that these are people who know their way around a stage. There’s always alive in Beckett the fact that this is a play, that these are show people. And the audience can feel that confidence, and they can be confident in that knowledge that the actors have, so that the game is always being played between us all. And that is important leavening, I think, for that bleakness you were talking about earlier.”
Beckett hated his actors asking about the motivation of their characters and their offstage lives. Have your actors in either Godot or Endgame raised such questions?
“We did raise those questions, and are raising them again, and it’s great to raise them knowing that Beckett hated those questions, because he is right: those questions for the most part kill that castle in the air that he is able to construct. Because he does create a new world: in Endgame’s case an end of the world, and in Godot’s case a kind of nowhere; that sort of edge of the void. And I think if you kill that with making decisions that are logical and consequential, so that an audience is then asked to follow a narrative to its closure – because I don’t think he was interested in closed narrative at all – then it’s death. But having said that, I think they’re great questions to ask, because I think they allow you to build your own architecture as an actor, not as a director. Then part of the challenge is to get rid of all of that so it still exists moment for moment, and all that’s existing is moment for moment. So motivation is a killer, because that leads to causality, which leads to conclusion, which means that a line always ends up being spoken like that.”
In some ways the haze that Clov sees when peers out the window is a haze that’s also in the wings and to some degree out in the auditorium, too.
“Absolutely. And how good is his eyesight? That’s up for grabs, anyway!”
Are you suspicious of allotting symbolic or allegorical meanings to Beckett’s plays?
“I’m not suspicious of an audience member who chooses to do that, but I am suspicious of a production that chooses to do that.”
So they have to be played on face value?
“Absolutely. And they come alive in the changes that are demanded of the actors, the mood-swings, and in this construction of new universes.”
And therefore in turn they come alive in the minds of the audience members.
Endgame: March 31-May 9, Sydney Theatre.