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Alan Mandell and Barry McGovern on Playing Beckett, Past and Present

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(L–R) Alan Mandell and Barry McGovern in "Endgame" at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.

Photo by Craig Schwartz.

At the heart of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame is a relationship between two characters—Hamm and Clov. Hamm is the chair-bound master who is dependent upon his servant, Clov, for life while browbeaten Clov—who is unable to sit—dreams of nothing but leaving.

Alan Mandell and Barry McGovern bring this complicated relationship to life in our production of Beckett’s masterwork, which plays the Kirk Douglas Theatre through May 22, 2016. At the ages of 89 and 67 respectively, Mandell and McGovern may be the most experienced actors and Beckett interpreters ever to play these roles, but it is the character of their relationship that lends their performances particular weight.

When asked how they know each other for a recent interview with Center Theatre Group, the two braced themselves simultaneously with, “Well…” before chuckling at their unplanned synchronicity.

“We met—I think it was in The Hague,” said Mandell.

“We met in the Peacock in Dublin,” said McGovern, “back in 1980. You were doing Endgame.”

In that production, directed by Beckett, Mandell played Nagg—Hamm’s father, who resides in an ash bin. Mandell recalled his very first rehearsal in the role (which he has played on numerous occasions). The actor playing Nell, Nagg’s wife and fellow ash bin-dweller, was out. But rather than cancel rehearsal, Beckett decided to join Mandell onstage himself. “I was terrified at the time!” confessed Mandell. “He said, ‘We’ll pull up two chairs. I’ll do Nell and you do Nagg’…and there were all sorts of people there!”

If Mandell and McGovern still harbor any anxiety about performing Beckett’s work, they do not show it. McGovern quoted Beckett to explain why he’s not fazed by the challenges of playing Clov: “If people want to have headaches among the overtones, let them—and provide their own aspirin.” He added, “People often try to complicate things…Endgame is about leaving. It’s all about Clov, the servant of Hamm, wanting to leave—to get away. This is the day he is finally going to break this symbiotic relationship that they have. We’ll see—at the end—whether he leaves or not, but he’s always talking about leaving. ‘I’ll leave you.’ It’s about finishing and leaving. ‘Finished’ is the first word in the play.”

“The end is in the beginning, and yet you go on,” added Mandell by way of Beckett.

Beckett has a reputation in popular culture of being more than a little depressing and Endgame—which Beckett reportedly began working on soon after the death of his brother—is often thought to be his grimmest work. However, McGovern said that audiences should arrive at the Douglas ready to laugh. “It’s a very funny play. I mean, it’s a serious play and it’s a harrowing play in some ways. But it’s a very gripping play,” he said. “It’s about everyone who is in a relationship. And any relationship, as we all know—however good it is—has its fraught moments, to put it mildly.”

So what about Mandell and McGovern’s relationship? After joking about how much they hate one another, McGovern confessed, “Alan is just an all-around nice guy...My admiration is boundless for this man.” 

To which Mandell added, “I wouldn’t do Endgame without Barry. I mean, I just wanted the very best actor and someone of great intelligence to work with—and that’s him.”

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