Review of Prime Cut's Endgame

Brendan Deeds is moved by Beckett's masterpiece at the Waterfront

To the casual, sceptical observer the plays of Samuel Beckett can appear to be, on the one hand, depressing and obscure and, on the other, obscure and depressing.

A bad production of Endgame can have the viewer repeating the hapless Clov's plaintive plea, 'it must be nearly finished'. However, Prime Cut have produced a rich, subtle and superbly acted Endgame, which captures all the dark beauty and tomb-black humour of Beckett's masterpiece.

When he left his teaching position at Belfast's Campbell College and the Headmaster warned him that he was turning his back on ' the cream of Ulster society', Beckett replied saying that just like cream, the pupils were 'rich and thick'. Beckett's wit was not reserved to such quips. There is a good deal of physical humour in Endgame.

Clov's antics with the ladder, made all the more arduous by his pronounced limp, approach a kind of slapstick which Frankie McCafferty performs perfectly. There are also moments in the dialogue between Clov and his master, Hamm, played by the consummate Conleth Hill, which recreate a hilarious take on Vaudevillian comic shtick whilst simultaneously highlighting the interplay between the powerful and the subjugated.

Endgame's actions take place in one room, housing the only four inhabitants of a barren Earth. Monica Frawley's ash-grey set hints at the dead landscape beyond whilst its vapid blue tones invoke the bleached hues of a prison cell. John Comiskey's refined use of lighting allows the darkness, at some moments, to insidiously creep into the room without the audience realising its malignant approach. This is used to great effect to give the impression of a nameless end drawing ever nearer.

Although the cast are all from the North, director Mark Lambert has wisely chosen to have them use accents from both sides of the border. An all-Ulster range would have invited the audience to view the play's themes of confinement, the use and abuse of power, and the misery one generation hands on to another within a Northern Ireland context. Whilst this would provide a provocative version of Endgame, removing the regional specificity allows a more open reading, appealing to universal themes whilst not totally discounting the former interpretation.

Lambert has assembled an incredible cast. Stella McCusker and Ian McElhinney provide some poignant moments as Hamm's dustbin-confined parents, Nell and Nagg. Frankie McCafferty's Clov is perfectly pitched between tragedy and farce and the actor never sets a foot wrong. However, it is Conleth Hill as the bullying, petulant Hamm which is without doubt the best acting you are likely to see on a Northern Irish stage this year.

This play marks Hill's return to the Northern Irish stage after winning two Olivier Awards for Stones In His Pockets and The Producers. As Hamm he is confined to a chair with little or no physical movement save for his hand gestures but this does not hinder Hill's ability to move his audience. With a pair of shades to hide Hamm's blind eyes and a large, grey beard he looks like a roadie for The Grateful Dead but he speaks in tones reminiscent of Ulster poet, Michael Longley.

Hamm manipulates the characters onstage, playing with them with the skill of a master chess player approaching the endgame. Hill manipulates the audience with equal skill. We are moved from hating him for his arrogance to pitying him for his pathetic life. He shows Hamm for what he is, both victim and scoundrel, both story-teller and character (in his own stories and in the playwright's), both central figure around which the rest pivot and a mere pawn in another, greater game.

It is the combination of Beckett's script and Hill's remarkable talents that have us shifting from one emotional sea-change after another. It is impossible not to be impressed by Hill's subtle, measured and masterful performance.

With the skilful direction of Mark Lambert and the inestimable talents of his cast on the top of their game, Beckett's jewel truly shines. This production reveals some of the beauty, humour and melancholy of life and is a must for anyone who appreciates good drama. Even if you're not a Beckett enthusiast, this production is such a gem that could convert all but the staunchest sceptic to the bitter-sweet pleasures of Beckett's dark world.

© Brendan Deeds