The End & The Calmative

Conor Lovett in Gare St Lazare Players Ireland's production of Samuel Beckett's 'The End', directed by Judy Hegarty Lovett. Photo: Jean Francois Andreu

Conor Lovett in Gare St Lazare Players Ireland's production of Samuel Beckett's 'The End', directed by Judy Hegarty Lovett. Photo: Jean Francois Andreu

In this double-bill, Gare St Lazare Players Ireland bring their tenth piece of Beckett prose to the stage. Written shortly after WWII, and first published in French in 1954, The End and The Calmative can be seen to bridge Beckett’s earlier short writings in English, and the more substantial Molloy trilogy, also staged by the company in the past.

In these novellas, each narrative is relayed by a male voice in various stages of isolation and decrepitude. The End begins as the figure recounts dressing in the clothes of someone recently deceased, and concludes with the consumption of a sedative; The Calmative opens with a man presuming he is already dead, and draws to a close as he falls to his knees, looking skyward. But in addition to these grim circumstances, there’s plenty of situational comedy, bawdiness and scatology to lift the existential angst.

Even though Beckett did not intend for these texts to be staged, under the direction of Judy Hegarty Lovett, Conor Lovett gives the voices life. An experienced performer of Beckett’s work, Lovett takes the direct speech of the prose and turns it into something closer to a chat with the audience. The performer’s tone is warm and reassuring throughout, the delivery deadpan and informal. While this approach succeeds in endearing us to the characters, and in particular their more humorous anecdotes, it also runs the risk of making everything feel too familiar.

Conor Lovett in 'The End'. Photo: Jean Francois Andreu.Wearing a brown corduroy suit throughout, a black turtleneck, and a hat (which is removed for The Calmative in the second half), Lovett knowingly looks like the man encountered by the narrator in The End – “a bald man in a brown suit, a comedian.” In this, his embodied narrators are much more composed than their experiences would have us believe. Although the voices complain of tiredness, weakness, and illness, Lovett portrays none of the enfeeblement or decomposition that is so central to the characterization and to Beckett’s vision more generally. While Lovett is quite spirited for The End, and relatively subdued for The Calmative (the darker piece of the two), his physicality belies the frailty of Beckett’s narrators.

The approach to performance inverts the more established tradition of playing Beckett’s characters as quite fragile bodies with robust, resilient voices and spirits – think Billie Whitelaw in Not I – giving us instead incarnations which are more domesticated, perhaps even with greater popular appeal. When Lovett walks into the first few rows of seating for the second piece, leaning close to the spectators, we are reminded that an altogether more polished storyteller has replaced the contingent narrator.

The staging is simple throughout. A large red velvet curtain, pinched in places, forms the main backdrop, and a couple of benches flank stage right. Following the interval, these are moved to the left. Sarah Jane Shiels’ lighting design is sensitive and unobtrusive.

Although the voice in both prose pieces seems strikingly similar, to work as a theatre programme it might have been more fruitful to create a greater distinction. Although Lovett loses the hat and unclips his trouser bottoms for The Calmative, it feels too subtle. The second installment takes up almost exactly where The End left off, with no marked alteration in tone or playing style. At a lengthy two and half hours long, some more variation would certainly have been welcome, or even by working with a different coupling of prose altogether. To form an interesting programme, the performances should be complementary and mutually-illuminating rather than almost identical.

Fintan Walsh is Research Fellow in Drama at the Samuel Beckett Centre.

  • Review
  • Theatre

The End & The Calmative by Samuel Beckett

12 - 17 April, 2010 and on tour

Produced by Gare St Lazare Players Ireland
In Project Arts Centre

Directed by Judy Hegarty Lovett

Lighting Design: Sarah Jane Shiels

With: Conor Lovett