Australian company Wits' End arrive at Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival

‘Nothing is funnier than unhappiness, I grant you that.’ Thus observes Nell, an old woman who lives in a dustbin in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, her husband Nagg stuffed in another bin beside her.

Nell’s grim aperçu could easily be the watchword of the play, and as if to emphasise the oddly malicious habit that human beings have of finding the misfortunes of others risible, a Buster Keaton clip precedes the action in this production of Endgame brought to this year’s Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival by the Australian Wits’ End company.

Beckett himself, though he adored Keaton, would have been livid at the inclusion. He abhorred any alterations whatsoever to his published works, viewing the texts and stage instructions therein as inviolably sacrosanct.

And much as Beckett loved music, he would surely have been equally unimpressed by the incorporation of Bach’s magnificent Chaconne from the 'D minor Partita for solo violin' into the Wits’ End production, at the beginning and end of the action, and also in the middle.

The Chaconne is a towering masterpiece in its own right, but its inclusion here has no significant impact on the production, other than stretching the audience’s patience in the ten minutes that it occupies before the play gets going. This paradoxically makes it more difficult for the actors to hit the ground running with the text, in the wake of the rippling post-echoes created by the music’s magnificently grand and dolorous utterances.

When the Bach and Keaton are finally over, however, it immediately becomes apparent that the Wits’ End staging is of an exceptionally high quality. Unusually, it’s played in traverse, the audience raked on either side of a central performing strip in St Macartin’s parish hall, behind the Church of Ireland cathedral.

At one end sits Hamm, the blind, immobile son of Nell and Nagg, whom we first see draped in a mouldy dustsheet. At the other end are Nell’s and Nagg’s dustbins, shut for most of the performance, though occasionally opened by Clov, a servant-figure helplessly at Hamm’s beck and call, pandering to his every whim and fancy.

The greatest strength of this production is arguably its infallible sense of pacing. This allows time for the words of Beckett’s precisely calculated script to work their allusive magic, while never permitting the dialogue to lag behind a naturally conversational rate of progress, in search of metaphysical profundities fully present in the text already.

Within these broadly naturalistic parameters the actors also have adequate room to point the humour, often black and always irresistible, eked out by Beckett from the states of physical and mental enshacklement all four characters are inescapably trapped in.

Critically, also, the relationship between the servant Clov and Hamm, his master, is never made too bitterly argumentative. It’s crucial that the pair, though frequently annoyed and irritated by one another, don’t lose sight of the ties that ineluctably bind them in an unbreakable pattern of mutual dependence.

There’s a grudging tenderness between the two characters, as well as truculence. Both David Tredennick (Clov) and Peter Houghton (Hamm) catch this sensitively, allowing the compassion to surface that is always present even in Beckett’s most desperate dramatic situations.

Tredennick’s performance as Clov is specially memorable. Downtrodden and manipulated as he is, Tredennick’s Clov retains a stoic dignity, and his ability to enlist the audience’s sympathy is never bought at the expense of the harshness and absurdity we need to constantly register at the character’s predicament.

As Clov’s ruler and tormentor Houghton deploys both laconic Australian vernacular, resounding Shakespearian rhetoric, and hammy Olivier impersonations, in a range of accents designed to emphasise the extent to which linguistic virtuosity is virtually the only freedom left to him in the wheelchair, both actual and existential, in which he’s playing out the balance of his allotted time-span as a human being.

Houghton’s clipped command of text and silken timing are impeccable. The Nagg and Nell of Tom Considine and Evelyn Krape (almost the perfect Beckettian surname) respectively take their brief opportunities to story-tell and beg for sugar-plums and biscuits with seasoned relish, again counter-balancing the comedy carefully against the poignancy of their terminally entrapped situations.

This Australian Endgame is a fitting production to close a six-day festival packed with outstandingly stimulating events by Sean Doran, its indefatigable and highly imaginative artistic director.

As with all the finest Beckett productions, you emerge from Wits’ End’s Endgame pondering why, after witnessing some of the bleakest scenarios ever put on stage by a playwright, you still feel somehow inspired and energised, elated even, for having seen them.