Photos - Heidrun Löhr
The End, written by Samuel Beckett in 1946, was never meant to be a play. Aside from the prose and its title, Beckett gave no other details or suggestions, certainly no stage directions or description of a set. And yet, performed and read aloud, it is a work that creates imagery and gives insight into a character’s existence and thoughts so vivid, that it is difficult to imagine it in any other form.
Sydney’s Belvoir produced The End last year to great acclaim and so the arrival of the same production in Melbourne promised something quite special. The play has very little action, no set to speak of, nor music or sound effects. It is simply Robert Menzies bringing to life the first person narrator, who remains unnamed, of Beckett’s prose. In the intimacy of the Malthouse’s Beckett Theatre (named not after Samuel Beckett but John Beckett, who was responsible for the CUB Malthouse conversion) it is an entirely different work to the bigger, louder, more colourful production, ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore, that is showing in the theatre beside it. Whilst it would be unfair to draw a comparison between the two works, if the immediate discussion The End prompted at its conclusion is any indication, this is the sort of theatre that the Malthouse audience has been waiting for.
Menzies enters the performance space through a door that is barely recognisable against a painted black wall. He is dishevelled; he’s barefoot, his black pants and white, button-up shirt are worn and un-pressed, his hair is a mess, and his face wary and aged. He doesn’t smell, but he looks as though he should. He walks slowly to a small, white cross, made of tape that marks the centre of the black stage. With great concentration, he places both feet on the cross. From this silent standing position he seems to survey his audience for quite some time, but it soon becomes apparent that he is taking in his new world, that in which he must function and fend for himself.
Menzies’ character tells the story of having been released from some sort of institution. It could be psychiatric or even a regular hospital. From the character’s point of view, everything outside of its walls looks different to the way it used. The character’s only bearing seems to be the cross on which he stands. He didn’t want to leave his asylum – there was a bed, a routine, food brought in on trays, someone asking how he was and if he needed anything – but the authorities told him he was ready to leave. Given money and clothes he was to create a life for himself, but he felt that rather than a future, his release was the beginning of the end. Without the emotional, and sometimes physical, means to pursue a fulfilling life, or to end his own life for that matter, his story is of how he waited – for the end of his existence.
The circumstances that The End’s character recalls are often dark, and sometimes the detail in which he describes them is disturbing. But Beckett’s character is incredibly observant of his surroundings, as well as his own physical and emotional reaction to them, and somehow he finds pleasure and humour in the most dire of situations. He finds a cow pat with a heart drawn into its surface, he describes the liberating pleasure that comes with scratching himself, he admits to the calculated process of relieving himself without actually going to the toilet, and he describes the comfort to be found in the kingdom he created for himself in the hull of an old boat. It is a ghastly world that he recounts, one that he seems increasingly unable to escape, and it would be heart wrenching to watch him were he not so resolved to stay there.
Menzies is clearly in his element here. In a controlled performance using only the occasional flurry of his hands or jolt of his head, he has created a character that is at once bitter, frustrated and fragile. Indeed the play’s subject matter and character have the potential to alienate the audience, particularly as the character’s storytelling comes across as a recalling and re-evaluating of events for his own sake, rather than for an audience. However Menzies manages to build a rapport with his audience and never leaves them behind. This is tested every now and then when his character mumbles his words, or chops off parts of his sentences. It would be easy for his audience to simply let the words wash over them, but by now they care about what he is saying and so actively work a little to understand the full meaning of his words. It makes for an interesting interaction between audience and storyteller, one that is rather true to life.
Credit must go to director Eamon Flack who has made some brave and wise choices. It would perhaps have been tempting to edit Beckett’s prose but instead Menzies delivers it line for line. As true to the original text as possible, the lack of set allows the full beauty and power of Beckett’s language and Menzies’ performance to be felt. It also allows for ambiguity as to the possible location of the character. Teegan Lee’s lighting further creates this; whilst the lights gradually fade and brighten throughout the piece changing the mood, and perhaps indicating the changes of paragraphs in the original text, they are also often bathing Menzies in an ethereal, golden haze. Then, right near the end of the play they highlight him in a steely white blue. They not only suggest that the nature of the character’s existence is not as we might initially have thought, but that it has perhaps changed throughout the play.
For a work in which not much happens, The End prompts quite a few intriguing questions. As many have done with Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, one could agonise over these and their possible answers. There is however a great deal of satisfaction and enjoyment to be had in viewing it simply because at its heart is a wonderful piece of writing and in its new form it is also a thoroughly engaging piece of theatre.
Malthouse Theatre presents a Belvoir production
by Samuel Beckett
Directed by Eamon Flack
Venue: Beckett Theatre | The CUB Malthouse, 113 Sturt Street, Southbank VIC
Dates: February 17 - March 11, 2011