Acting out the apocalypse – in dustbins

The cast of Pan Pan’s upcoming Endgame talk about Samuel Beckett’s enduring relevance

Given the threats that face us, it's no surprise that the apocalypse is right back in fashion. Or perhaps it never went away? The end of days was certainly a consuming passion in the post-war 1950s. As Pan Pan prepare to revive Samuel Beckett's Endgame (1957), I go to watch the actors in rehearsal. Endgame is bleak Beckett at his richest and darkest, "a brutal version of Godot", says Pan Pan director Gavin Quinn. But don't let that put you off. In fact it should be a draw.

Nell and Nag live in dustbins. Their son, Hamm, is blind and wheelchair-bound. Clov, who waits on him with an unsettling co-dependency, limps about the space, and cannot sit. Only Clov can see outside, and so we have to take his word for it that there is nothing: “zero”, he says. Food is running out. Relationships are enacted through resigned and frequently desperate repetition. What has caused the end of everything is unspecified, but when you’re wondering why you bother to continue; what brought you there might end up being rather less important.

The Extinction Rebellion people would have a ball at this. Hopefully the world hasn't quite gone there yet

It could be something as banal as a slow decline through apathy and inertia, until the tipping point came. "The Extinction Rebellion people would have a ball at this," agrees Andrew Bennett, who plays Hamm. "Hopefully the world hasn't quite gone there yet." His Hamm has a beguilingly unpleasant edge. "It's hard to play a complete s**t," the actor notes. "I feel sorry for him because he's a human being," he adds.

“Imagine if a rational being came back to earth,” his character muses “wouldn’t he be liable to get ideas into his head if he observed us long enough.” He continues in the supposed voice of the rational being: “Ah, good, now I see what it is, yes, now I understand what they’re at!”

Whatever Beckett was saying more than a half century ago, it’s bang on the money now. Maybe it’s because we can’t imagine the end of ourselves, but apocalyptic literature always holds the hope of survival. It might be grim, it might be frightening, but still we persist. The stories are the stories of those who remain. Shakespeare nails it in King Lear, when Edgar cheerily pronounces “the worst is not / So long as we can say ‘This is the worst’.” The hope lies in our ability to imagine, and with imagination there is always hope.

Every now and then, and at every juncture, the audience needs to see this. The tone of Endgame, however relevant the themes, and the tragicomedy of it, and the futility of it, we think it will speak to people now

So what’s the point? Hamm asks himself the same question. And so, of course, does Quinn, of his decision to stage the play. “Every now and then, and at every juncture, the audience needs to see this. You need to put it on. The tone of Endgame, however relevant the themes, and the tragicomedy of it, and the futility of it, we think it will speak to people now.”

Playing Nell and Nag, Rosaleen Linehan and Des Keogh are returning to roles they inhabited just shy of a decade ago in the Gate's production of the play, directed by Alan Stanford in 2010. Keogh is going over a joke: "a smart fly is a stiff proposition… I've never told it worse," his character says gloomily, but I get the sense Keogh wants to take the words further too.

Quinn is also working out how to extract full drama and meaning. It can be tough when there have been hundreds of incredible actors and directors, parsing the very same lines before you. Linehan steps in. “Would it make it easier if you told it to me?” she asks. And it does. It’s a rainy day in the Lab rehearsal space. Next door some dancers are leaping nosily about. Yellow tape and plastic sheeting delineate the windows for Beckett’s notoriously restrictive set direction.

For now, a pair of chairs stand in for Nell and Nag’s dustbins. “We’re growing in age, and into the part,” says Linehan, musing on the passage of time. Does it feel differently now? “Yes, it does actually. For example, I find the sadness in our scene absolutely heart-breaking, even more in the last 10 years, because life has moved another 10 years on. We were old when we did it last… I wanted to do it again,” she continues, “because it was one of my favourite things that I ever did.” Linehan is one of those extraordinary actors who can move from laughter to pathos, both on stage and in conversation, or from flippancy to raw sincerity, in a heartbeat. Why such a favourite? “It’s very loving,” she says. “Lots of love.” Chalk up one more to the hope column.

Alongside their own rich and varied careers, Keogh and Linehan are also famous for their comedy double act review which ran through the 1970s and 1980s. So how do you balance the comedy with the awful grimness of this piece? “That’s what we’ve been doing all our lives, one way or another,” says Linehan. “There are very few Irish tragedies that aren’t also funny. I can’t think of any that aren’t. Any good ones, I mean.”

There was no way we could get out of the bins last time. I had wine, and a crossword and a book. Of course I didn't drink a drop of wine until we were finished

Keogh, who has a brilliant face for the role, describes how the comedy instinct, which lets you know how to deliver a line, is made harder by Beckett's precisely prescribed pauses. We talk about audiences, the quiet ones, the guarded ones, the giving ones. About the sudden joy of looking out at one you've thought was unresponsive, to see that they're wracked with silent laughter. Linehan describes an audience in the States, where their previous Endgame had been on a long tour. "They were coming to see Beckett in their polo necks and black framed glasses. And Owen Roe [playing Hamm] saying that no one was laughing, but he could hear me laughing away in my bin…" and here she whoops with more laughter herself.

But 80-plus minutes in a bin is tough. “We were very uncomfortable in the bins before. But we’re not going to be this time,” warns Keogh, with a deadpan look at designer Aedín Cosgrove. “There was no way we could get out,” agrees Linehan. “But I had wine, and a crossword and a book. And I had a way, if I had forgotten anything, I could leave a message to the stage manager to drop it by. Of course I didn’t drink a drop of wine until we were finished,” she insists, adopting a saintly air. Keogh chimes in that in his case it will need to be a baby Jameson.

We talk more about putting on Beckett today. "Why does he stay?" wonders Anthony Morris, whose Clov is the only character who can move of his own volition. "It's a lot of power, even though he does what he's told." Again I think of how prescient this is: the unrealised power of the ability to mobilise, the threat inherent in simply becoming resigned to a situation.

In insisting on setting his play in somewhere that could be anywhere, and a time that can be any time, Beckett has preserved the full impact of its power and meaning

Not only did Beckett carefully mete out his characters’ pauses, he was also aggressively clear on staging. In 1984, Grove Press, who own his work, took legal action against a theatre company that had set Endgame in a derelict subway tunnel. “My play requires an empty room and two small windows,” wrote Beckett on the controversy. “The American Repertory Theater production which dismisses my directions is a complete parody of the play as conceived by me. Anybody who cares for the work couldn’t fail to be disgusted by this.”

In 2015, a Guardian review of the Melbourne Theatre Company’s Endgame at the Southbank Theatre was headlined “innovation choked by Samuel Beckett’s strict staging edicts”, concluding that if you want to see Beckett work that lives “you’re gonna have to wait until they pass into the public domain. In 2059”. But as the cast and crew of Pan Pan’s Endgame discuss life, hope, love and the apocalypse, in a Dublin studio on a rainy Thursday morning, I come to realise that in insisting on setting his play in somewhere that could be anywhere, and a time that can be any time, Beckett has preserved the full impact of its power and meaning.

The nameless event or slow decline that has isolated these characters feels very pressing as they go back to their rehearsals, and the play unfolds once more. "We're not beginning to… to… mean something?" questions Hamm. And then, towards the end of the play he comes to another conclusion: "The end is in the beginning and yet you go on." So how are we to feel? "It's like the same thing with Enda Walsh, " says Linehan. "You don't know why you're feeling either so amused or so sad, but it's hitting something in your psyche, and that doesn't always happen so often."

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Gemma Tipton

Gemma Tipton

Gemma Tipton contributes to The Irish Times on art, architecture and other aspects of culture