It is curtain-up time on a Thursday evening and, after a long day’s rehearsal at the Gate Theatre, American director Danya Taymor has retreated to her temporary residence in Dublin city centre. We are meeting on Zoom to mitigate the ongoing Covid risk all theatre-makers are still living in fear of. However, Danya herself feels pretty secure health-wise. She arrived in Ireland on January 3rd and immediately tested positive for Covid. By the time rehearsals started the following week, she was out the other side, ready to begin the intense physical work that defines her approach to directing theatre and her new production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, which will open at the Gate Theatre on February 11th.
The Californian-born, New York-based director arrives in Dublin on the back of the fourth revival of Antoinette Nwandu’s race relations drama Pass Over, which reopened Broadway in September last year. Originally produced at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre in 2017, Pass Over toured to New York, where it was seen by Spike Lee, who filmed it for Amazon’s streaming platform, ensuring an even wider audience for the provocative, political work. Taymor’s lengthy relationship with the production, she says, “is a real gift for all the artists involved. You grow with the work. You see something different every time. Antoinette even changed the ending every time we did it, which is pretty cool. So a community [putting on the work in the future] can choose the ending that they need.”
Pass Over trains its gaze on two young black men, Moses and Kitch, who spend their days on a street corner, talking, waiting for something that never happens: change. The play is in open conversation with Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and Taymor says that the company began every new rehearsal period with a deep reading of Beckett’s play, embedding themselves within the writer’s universe. For the most recent revival the company worked with veteran US actor Bill Irwin, who performed as Lucky in the famous Lincoln Centre production of Godot in 1988 and as Hamm in the 2012 American Conservatory production of Endgame in 2012. “So [working on Pass Over] last fall was actually a really great preparation for coming here to do Endgame,” Taymor says. Indeed, she spoke at length with Irwin about her ambitions for the production before arriving in Dublin, and he gave her the hat he wore as Hamm as a talisman for her journey (more on that later).
Taymor’s new production stars Frankie Boyle as Hamm and Robert Sheehan as his put-upon servant, Clov, a starry cast that was in place before Taymor came on board as director. As Taymor explains, “Frankie and Robert share an agent and I think it was her brainchild. She knew of their mutual admiration. And this is what they came up with to work together. [When] actors are the inciting force for a passion project, that is really affecting, really exciting for me.”
To think of all the Endgames that have been on here over the last 30 years... it just feels like there is so much richness to the circumstances of us coming together at this time
When Gate artistic director Selina Cartmell approached Taymor about directing them, Taymor could not believe her luck. The two women first met in New York in 2012, when Taymor worked as assistant director on Cartmell’s production of John Ford’s The Broken Heart at the Baryshinikov Arts Center. (In an inviting coincidence, Cartmell had previously worked under the mentorship of Taymor’s aunt, Julie Taymor). They reconnected when Cartmell watched an innovative Zoom drama that Taymor directed last year, and the invitation to direct Endgame followed.
“I immediately said yes,” Taymor remembers, “but I knew it was a huge responsibility to come here, to Dublin, to this theatre which has such a long association with Beckett.”
The historical responsibility, however, was part of the attraction. “It really enriches it for me. To think of all the Endgames that have been on here over the last 30 years.” There are other synchronicities. “Seán [McGinley] played Clov before; now he’s playing Nagg. Frankie’s thesis at college was on Beckett . . . It just feels like there is so much richness to the circumstances of us coming together at this moment in time.”
As Taymor discusses work in the rehearsal room, the idea of coming together and collaboration recurs. “All art is collaboration,” she says, “but theatre is the most collaborative artform. It requires so much trust; even the idea of the playwright giving it to the director, the actors taking it and running it. But that kind of trust gets built. You have to earn it by showing up every day.”
Taymor likes to foster this trust through physical exploration in the rehearsal room. Rehearsal begins with an hour-long “deep physical warm-up, where we breathe and stretch together”. The company do “mirroring, work on eye contact, which is all very intimate and can be challenging to begin with”. What the company is building up to is “connection. We are actively creating a culture of consent, where we are asking each other: Are you interested in exploring this? Are you comfortable? Is there anything that makes you uncomfortable? It’s about giving an actor agency to be constructing their own environment.”
Working within Beckett's intense restriction, there is actually so much freedom, so I am surprised that productions tend to look exactly the same
Bodies, Taymor elaborates, are so important to the physical and metaphorical realisation of character, even in a play like Endgame, where three of its main characters are immobilised: Nell and Nagg are stuck in bins; Hamm is in a wheelchair. “How did their bodies move before?” she asks. “What is missing? What has been lost? [In Endgame the characters’ lack of physicality] is something to lament.” There is also the issue of “how physical that confinement is for the actor: to be in a chair or trash can for 90 minutes.” The role of Clov, meanwhile, is overtly physical. “He has been maimed and hurt [by Hamm] so the way he moves is very painful. How do we make that clear on stage?”
Taymor has found herself excited too by the visual opportunity that Beckett’s restricted stage directions offer. “Working within Beckett’s intense restriction,” she says, “there is actually so much freedom, so I am surprised that productions tend to look exactly the same. Inside the specificity is freedom, [the directions are] an invitation to be filled.”
Working with designer Sabine Dargent, Taymor says, “the set is going to look different, but I am confident that we have followed all the directives.” (The Beckett estate has approved.)
The collaboration with costume designer Katie Davenport has also allowed Taymor to experiment with the production history of Beckett’s play. Irwin’s hat (remember, that token of good luck) has been absorbed into Davenport’s design, becoming a structural centrepiece to the headwear that Boyle will wear as Hamm. Taymor is thrilled by the historic channelling that this piece of production trivia, which will not be visible to an audience, provides. “It is all terrifying. It is a really big deal. But the energy – it’s vibrating.”
Endgame runs at the Gate Theatre from February 11th to March 26th