|Robert Menzies Photography Heidrun Löhr
The American filmmaker Woody Allen once lamented: “Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering – and it’s all over much too soon.” He wasn’t having a beer with Samuel Beckett at the time, but if he had been the Irish playwright would have no doubt grinned and agreed with him. Because that’s the absurdity of the human condition that Beckett so brilliantly illuminates. We are born, we live, we breathe, we bitch and moan about it, and then we die.
In The End – Beckett’s 22-page novella that is here adapted in its entirety for the stage – his lone male narrator is as downtrodden as they come. We may not know much about him, but we can be sure of one thing, and that is that life has already given up on him. The local charity organization certainly has, they won’t even let him shelter in the cloister for much longer than the rain lasts. And then he’s forced to rent the only lodgings he can find, a squalid basement devoid of natural light, where his only pleasure is looking up the skirts of the women passing by. Later, he finds momentary salvation with a Hermit in a cave by the coast where fish and shelter are plentiful. However, this fleeting promise of paradise is not to be – he can’t stand the sea! Of course, things get worse, as you’d know doubt expect, after all it is Beckett. The narrative follows the sad, and often perversely funny ramblings of this poor soul as he marches ever onward from the embrace of despair into the arms of death.
The extraordinary Robert Menzies, an actor of the highest calibre, brings this incredibly challenging material to the stage in a 65-minute monologue that’s as intense and tightly wound as a mousetrap. Without the usual distractions provided by an elaborate set and high-tech sound wizardry the opening-night audience were captivated, unable to look away as they sat rigid in their seats, hanging on his every breath and anxious twitch. The only respite was the brief breaks between paragraphs, when Menzies paused momentarily and stepped away from his mark on the floor. Kudos should go to Teegan Lee for her delicate and subtle lighting changes that help to refocus the action during these crucial shifts.
Director Eamon Flack has ably coaxed an immensely vulnerable performance from Menzies. However, with the despair so absolute from the get-go there were times when it seemed, to this reviewer at least, that there was nowhere further down to go. Perhaps too this minimalist production missed out on the opportunity to visually show the degradation of this character through breaking down the costuming. For at the close of the play Menzies’ neat white shirt and trousers have barely a crinkle. Of course the purists out there would surely say that’s piffle – it’s an inward journey we are watching and anything that obvious may have come across as distracting window dressing. And who knows? Maybe they are right, but still, it would have been fun to see excrement and muck flying into the front rows.
Fellow writer Harold Pinter once said of Samuel Beckett “the more he grinds my nose in the shit the more I am grateful to him”, and that, pretty much, sums up what an audience should ultimately expect to gain from seeing this production of The End.
Company B Belvoir presents
Directed by Eamon Flack
Venue: Belvoir St Downstairs Theatre | 25 Belvoir St, Surry Hills
This review first appeared on Australian Stage April 2010