Gate Theatre, Dublin
It’s an understatement to say family relationships are dysfunctional in Samuel Beckett’s absurdist classic from 1957. Inside an empty house on the edge of the apocalypse we find Hamm, a paralysed man seated in a stained armchair, who has trapped his parents inside dustbins (“Accursed progenitor!”). He also tries to adopt Clov as his son – a harried young servant who came to live with him via mysterious circumstances. “It was I was a father to you,” suggests Hamm, tauntingly.
In this vision of hell on earth, it’s tempting for any production to approach Hamm as an unlikeable tyrant. It comes as a surprise in Danya Taymor’s fresh, absorbing revival for the Gate Theatre that when we first meet him, he moans affectedly about his pain as if someone more superficial than despotic. “Can there be misery loftier than mine?” he says, with self-fascination, in Frankie Boyle’s thoughtful performance. You’d think he had sunk into a self-induced crisis.
That lends something new to the play’s double-act. Not only does Hamm comes across as needy while ordering Clov from one tedious task to the next, from making reports of what’s happening outside the windows, to moving his armchair around the room. He also seems to live his life by floating from distraction to distraction. (“I’d like to pee.” “Time enough. Give me my pain killer.” “Is my dog ready”?). Not since Ab Fab has watching an insecure parent reliant on their child been as comical.
If Boyle’s performance sits in a constant haze of rich, satisfying selfishness, Robert Sheehan’s hounded Clov drags his heel with a moody boyishness. (“You and I, mean something! That’s a good one,” he sneers, expounding philosophical nihilism and child rebellion in one breath). The clever details of Katie Davenport’s costuming widens the age gap between both men, while the steep angles of Sabine Dargent’s set – like a lost still shot from Nosferatu – frame a household where there are reports of civilisation outside crumbling, of nature disappearing. This family is stuck with each other.
The play’s wisdom comes from Hamm’s dying parents Nell and Nagg, who, played superbly by Gina Moxley and Sean McGinley, allow memories of an ecstatic lifetime together to cool into an unsettling silence, into the dread of final departures. There are also regrets: a confession of not comforting a crying baby in the night, and a parent’s late-in-life realisation about wanting to feel needed by a child.
No wonder Hamm babbles elaborately and insincerely – to be heard might mean to be loved. It’s a difficult transition from Boyle’s fabulist approach into a more intimate confrontation with fear and rejection, something that Beckett’s play, much like Isabella Bryd’s chiaroscuro lighting, will insist on as tragedy. This might not be the production’s forte, but there is still a fitting conclusion in watching Hamm, after his “final soliloquy”, being abandoned by his servant, who has become similarly affected. “This is what we call making an exit,” snaps Clov, dramatically. Like father, like son.
Runs until March 26th