Matinee. American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge. Directed by Marcus Stern. Opened February 14, 2009
I’ll never need to see a production of Endgame any better and truer than this. With one ostensible exception (in the case of the closing moments of the play), the production is absolutely faithful to the text. Not only has the text been preserved, but the spirit of Beckett’s play has been given a fine, clear, authentic revivification. Granted, the Beckett estate will have seen to this as assiduously as possible; still, it is not often, in the case of the ART, that a perfectly transparent production has been mounted — and acted superbly, by four stalwart veterans of the ART Company: Will LeBow as Hamm, Thomas Derrah as Clov, Remo Airaldi as Nagg, and Karen MacDonald as Nell.
The setting is a small structure set in the darkness of the much larger and deeper ART stage, and built up on a platform perhaps three-plus feet off the stage floor. This makes it possible for the actors playing Nagg and Nell to stand when the lids of their ash-can dwellings are opened, making only their heads and shoulders visible. The scene is a shack, with neutral-colored walls, virtually bare of furnishings. The two large windows upstage are almost entirely boarded up, leaving only one row of small glass windows at the very top. Clov uses an aluminum ladder with six steps to get up high enough to look out, a ladder he carries on and off stage from an open doorway downstage left leading to the “kitchen.”
At the end of the play, after Hamm’s last words have been spoken and Clov is standing close to the doorway, jacket and hat on, case and umbrella in hand — Hamm having replaced the large sanguinary cloth over his head and pillbox hat — the lights dim, a special comes up on the figure of Hamm, sitting immobile up stage center in his wheelchair; as the lights go further dim sidewalls begin to move away from the floor of the scene, and then the upstage wall does the same. As the light dims completely, we see the three walls moving gradually away into the total darkness; finally, the light on Hamm also goes out entirely and the darkness is total.
In the post-performance discussion with the new ART artistic director Diane Paulus and the actor Thomas Derrah, when someone asked what the receding walls were supposed to mean, Derrah said laughingly that “this is the ART — we’re supposed to do something like that.” He then continued to suggest that the play represents the last stage of something, that things are falling apart. As Hamm puts it, “Something is taking its course.” The idea of doing this had been the brainchild of Andromache Chalfont, the set designer, and Scott Zielinski, the lighting designer.
I thought it was a brilliant idea. As the walls were moving, I thought to myself, “I don’t know what this means exactly, but it seems entirely appropriate, suggesting as it does a dimension of meaning beyond what is evident here — just as the play overall does.” The wonderful thing about this production is that by hewing exactly to what the playwright has written it scrupulously avoids foreclosing on any of the possibilities of emergent meaning.