When En attendant Godot (Waiting for Godot), Samuel Beckett’s first play, was performed in 1953, it caused an immediate sensation. The audiences of the time sensed that something new was afoot and as is so often the case with groundbreaking work, those who did not love it thought it was scandalous. Feelings ran high. It has, of course, been performed in thousands of theatres all over the world since. Some have claimed to understand its keen analysis of the human condition, others feel it must be some sort of con trick.
Four years later Beckett was back, this time with Fin de Partie (Endgame). If Godot was bleak, then Fin de Partie appears bleaker still. Beckett is an artist of true integrity, stripping away anything that might distract an audience from his penetrating analysis of the human condition. Yet in the seemingly barren and pessimistic settings he portrays, there is a teasing quality, touches of humour, of slapstick, hints of commedia dell’arte and clever wordplay – puns, ambiguities and scholarly references which can delight those who are in tune with this highly intelligent playwright. There is undoubtedly plenty to laugh at in the play, but it is also quite clear that what we are laughing at seems to have deep metaphysical significance.
To select Fin de Partie in the original French, for a school production, is testament to admirable ambition from those involved and I wish to salute Mr Sheppe in particular, whose brainchild this was and who, like Beckett himself, shuns praise and thanks, but without whom the play could and would not have been performed. M. Portier and Jeanne Fournis, our Bordeaux Fellow, were generous with their time and expertise, helping both with French accents and stagecraft.
Freddy Williams, one of the real pupil stalwarts of the Drama Department, gave unstintingly of his time and expertise in helping direct the play, and what a fine job he did. Also working behind the scenes and producing a wonderful set was Alex Davies, our Theatre Technician. Dr Brown, Director of Drama, lent generous support to the production and was ably assisted by Morgan Smith, Abi Watkinson and Charlotte Roberts with make-up. Jake Ludlam did a super job with the lighting. For the performances themselves, the cast were assisted by a host of native or near-native speaker prompters, so thanks to Henri Cramsie, Antoine Legeais, Antoine Céolin and Oscar Mattinson.
What a task for the four young actors – not just to learn their parts, but to do so in a foreign language, while at the same time grappling with deep and mystifying dialogue, signifying everything and nothing.
In brief, picture the scene: a claustrophobic room, the floor laid out in black and white to represent the chessboard allusion the play’s title suggests, for this is about an Endgame. There are two tiny windows only – but to see out of them requires a ladder and only one of the four characters is able to move. Hamm, the main character is blind and stuck in a wheelchair. Clov, his manservant, is physically unable to sit and spends the play doing his master’s bidding, but at least he can move. Backstage sit two dustbins and every now and then up pops a lid and the face of either Nagg, Hamm’s Father, or Nell, Hamm’s Mother emerges to engage in conversation and reminiscence. For those who remember it, we could be watching a curious version of Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men.
Taking centre stage (literally if you know the play), was Jacob Jefferis as Hamm. This is an enormous role and a daunting prospect for any actor, professional or otherwise. Step in Jacob, in his first ever role on stage, in any language. He acquitted himself extremely well, delivering his complicated lines in impressive French and clearly understanding the angst but also the humour of the role.
His foil, as the indomitable Clov, Hamm’s servant, was Lucas Jones Polanco. What a splendid job Lucas did as the much put-upon man, pandering to Hamm’s every whim, trudging wearily from one side of the stage to the other, ascending and descending ladders, bringing Hamm a succession of unlikely props. The interplay between the two main characters – the intensity and frustrations of the relationship but also the hilarious moments of humour – were all marvellously conveyed.
Not to be outshone, Sophia Breese as Nell, and Tobias Libreros as Nagg were quite brilliant in their roles. Both are confined for the duration of the play to their respective dustbins, so all we ever see of them are their heads and shoulders. But they packed a mighty punch with the expressions on their faces and the brilliant delivery of their lines, conveying the nostalgia for lost love and the magic of yesteryear. Sophia’s accent is so convincing that she can easily be mistaken for a native speaker, and she is clearly a highly talented young actress. I will remember the way she conveyed so much emotion with the words ‘Ah, hier!’ for a long time. I do hope we will see her treading the boards again soon.
Tobias Libreros deserves particular mention, for he is a mere stripling in the Third Form. What a prospect he is. He has a bubbly personality and is a startlingly good communicator, without inhibitions, who relished his complicated lines and delighted the audience with the sensitive relating of his tales. Partly French he may be, but he clearly has a great future in Salopian theatreland in English as well.
There is such paradox in Beckett and in his plays. Beckett himself, a gentle, shy and very private Irishman, the only Nobel literature laureate to have played first-class cricket (he was a left-hand batsman and a left-arm medium-pace bowler), never happier than when watching tennis at Wimbledon. Yet he made his home in Paris and was there introduced to James Joyce – a meeting that was to have a profound effect on him. He felt overshadowed by Joyce’s brilliance and chose the opposite tack for his own writing – deciding that his work should focus on poverty, failure, exile and loss. So we the audience watched this marvellous production of Fin de Partie, and paradoxically as it ended, we realised that what we had witnessed had brought us a theatrical experience of richness, success, welcome and discovery.