Clambering up a colossal scaffold in a cavernous concrete cellar, a space of sudden cold and dark on a burning Brussels day, we were faced with fluttering rows of rent seams. Through these we slide our heads, chests pressed against the scaffold’s bars, peering down into the smoky darkness, which suddenly flares up into a hospital-corridor white. A bulky pink-stained figure reclines at its bottom, a geriatric foetus stranded in the hollows of a sterile womb. Around the upper echelons, a chorus of our own disembodied heads blink out the light, and follow a young, muscular, red-faced, red-haired man traversing and inspecting the sparse set, busy without purpose, until, halting at the door, teetering at the exit, he utters Endgame’s first word: ‘Finished’.
Bruguera’s set is a truly ingenious mode of presenting Beckett’s play – the discomfort of craning one’s neck down over the bar; the worry that comes with being divorced from one’s body; the metallic creaking and clanking of the structure seeming all the more alien while one’s eyes are presented with only a soft world of white cloth; the occasional yawn of a backlight which brings our shadows up against the cylindrical wall, like a magic lantern of gangly forms trussed up in a gallery of stocks. With its apocalyptic theme, the performance itself is a timely one: it both rings true with the current political landscape, and conversely serves as a reminder that we are only one of countless generations who felt as though the end was upon them. The only thing that really stirs the protagonist of Endgame – besides worrying whether he is in the centre of the room – is the fear that something, anything – a rat, a human – might procreate. The only things that really settle him – besides the surety that he is in the centre of the room – are various affirmations that the end – the end of anything – is nearing. The central revelation of the play is that both hope and disillusionment, when weighed on the grand scale, are equally impoverished responses to the callus indifference of the world, half-forgotten stories we repeat to ourselves against the constant darkness.
Brilliant though Beckett is, with so many contemporary artists writing their own lively and ingenious scripts, I was, and remain, a tad uncomfortable with a good deal of the resources of a contemporary art festival being given over to the staging of a sixty-year-old play excised from the cannon. Even in the theatre world, living voices have enough trouble as it is trying to be heard above the tumbling echo of the old greats. There is, too, doubtless some danger involved in slotting such an excision into the contemporary art formula, with a programme reading “Tania Bruguera – Endgame” presenting the first obvious absurdity, where even “Beckett/Bruguera – Endgame” would be somewhat presumptuous on the Cuban end. S.B. is long from reaching the point when a whole play of his can be treated as a pigment on another artist’s pallet. Having said that, it is also true that, with the word ‘Beckettian’ hanging like a stale smell on the breath of so much contemporary art criticism – between burps of ‘Kafkaesque’ – it actually comes as a relief when the suffix is dropped and one gets a shot of Beckett neat.
Anthony for DRAFF