“Finished, it’s finished. Nearly finished.” The opening line of Beckett’s absurdist icon Endgame is a neat illustration of the play’s style: razor-sharp, black-as-hell wordplay and self-reference combined with an utterly bleak existential outlook. It is a titanic text to attempt to do justice, but Will Felton’s production with Fools and Kings Theatre attacks it with a visceral intensity, dragging it back from classroom analysis to the raw medium of the stage.
The cerebral stage directions become brutally corporeal. The description of the bumbling servant Clov (Jamie Biondi) as “unable to sit down” is interpreted as one of his legs being deadened by a gaping, bloody wound. The role is extremely physically demanding, but Biondi tackles it with relish, dragging the useless leg behind him like a dead weight as he staggers around the intensely claustrophobic Burton-Taylor (with audience stacked on three sides). It is Luke Howarth as Hamm, though, who dominates, presiding over the stage with his resonant, mellifluous voice, delivering lines with an earnest gravity that is constantly undercut by Beckett’s impish humour.
The humour is key to this production’s biggest successes. The flip-side of its seemingly unmitigated gloom comes to life on stage more than on page: Clov killing a flea in a wild fit of insecticidal rage is a moment of pure slapstick. Thomas Toles and Dina Tsesarsky are less strong as Nagg and Nell, Hamm’s parents imprisoned alongside one another just too far apart to touch. Although they achieve a rich mix of supernatural ethereality and human tenderness, the action starts to sag in their lengthy dialogues. In fact, moments where the energy levels droop are far too frequent throughout, as pace suffers amidst thick verbal density.
In the latter stages of the production’s 100 minutes without an interval, the cyclical refrain of “It is finished. Nearly finished” becomes more a glimmer of hope for the audience than an expression of apocalyptic angst. Even the stark but eerily beautiful set and the ominous sound design don’t stop this production being just a little less than the sum of its parts. All the ingredients for a great production are present, but it needs the spark of sustained energy and pace to make it truly memorable.