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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton


  The End


By Samuel Beckett
Pavilion Theatre Brighton

The End is one of Sam Beckett’s early novellas, written at the fag-end of the Second World War. As such it has more narrative substance, more in the way of actual event, than we expect from the later Beckett. Still, when we think we have hold of something it slips away into the uncertainties of the half-grasped.

Conor Lovett, in this stage adaptation, assumes a solid physical presence as narrator and protagonist of this tale, if it is a tale. His voice, though, is not so sure, leaping forwards in certainty at one moment, then hesitant, falling back into aphasia, amnesia.

And there is something wrong with his body, too, you notice. Gestures grandly describing an action seize up, stall, and are stuck for what seems like minutes in painful, numb inertia.

For the audience this is captivating, hypnotic. You hang on the dead ends of the narrative, agape, before being swept along once more on the gorgeous rhythms of Beckett’s prose.

And what of the story? It begins with him leaving some sort of institution. A prison? An asylum? It could even be that, considering the timing, Beckett has in mind demobilisation. Victims of the war’s aftermath.

“I knew the end was near, or fairly near,” he says. He’s given money, clothes, a hat, a fresh start. Someone else’s clothes, he says, not the ones he arrived in. They’re too small. But they grow into him as he shrivels. Perhaps they are his clothes, and he’s just fattened up inside. Demob suits, too, were notoriously ill-fitting.

He relates his subsequent progressive destitution as a half-remembered adventure. He seizes on each turn of events with enthusiasm only for them to fall apart at his enfeebled cognition.

He finds lodging in a rat-infested basement, is robbed, lives in a cave by the sea for a bit, then ends up in a shed strewn with faeces. He makes his bed in a boat, impatient for a coffin no doubt, but it’s also the final expression if his human spirit, the Christian symbolism clicking in.

It doesn’t last. He shits the boat. His abjection is complete. He’s carried out to sea, whether in reality or his mind, it doesn’t matter by now. “I had no strength to go on, no courage to end it,” his closing line the classic Beckett double-bind, the tragic-comic conundrum of existence.

There is a resonance, a pertinence, in the futility of it all, though. When we walk by the homeless, the destitute, as we increasingly must these days, it’s hard for our imaginations to conceive how they might be like us. Lovett presents us with a human being of flesh and blood and mind, trying to make sense of a life, if it is a life, by telling a story. The last vestige of our humanity lies in having the last word.

We may not all be consigned to the humiliation of steerage but we are all, at the end of it, in the same boat.

15 October 2010

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