"The most you can hope is to be a little less, in the end, the creature you were in the beginning, and the middle." Samuel Beckett
Distinguished Australian actor Robert Menzies brings Samuel Beckett’s extraordinary short story The End to life at the Malthouse. Performing in monologue on a simple bare stage, Menzies has the daunting task of performing the piece in it’s entirety. Menzies is certainly no stranger to bleak and depressing roles having excelled in drama for most of his career, so will feel right at home inside this tale of existential sadness which is, of course, Beckett’s particular magic.
The story revolves around a lonely old man who is approaching the end of his life. He is ejected from the comfort of an institution where he had sheltered for many years. He now spends his days struggling to survive and waiting for some kind of conclusion to his existence. His life has failed, he’s beyond loneliness and destitution, so he ekes out the final small pleasures of living until there is nothing left but to drift away.
As an actor, Menzies has to find the sense of the story – the essence if you will. Beckett’s avant-garde style leaves much to ponder as Menzies says: "It’s never quite clear what kind of place it is he has been ejected from. It’s some place where he has been looked after: an asylum or hospital, it’s some kind of charitable institution, that’s all we know. He wanders, finds various lodgings, is ejected from them, wanders some more, finds another place. But it has that Beckett thing, that compulsion to talk, to fend off the silence or the end, or whatever it is."
Another Beckett trademark is to keep things plain as is evidenced in his other (and possibly most well known) tramp characters story, Waiting For Godot. Keeping things plain is a good thing for the actor/audience relationship as well. For the actor, it means acting over performing and for the audience it means the privilege of witnessing this. "I’ll just be standing there talking, no song-and-dance routines," says Menzies. "Nothing on the stage except me; whether that’s going to work or not, we’ll find out."
Menzies is, of course, the grandson of late prime minister Robert Gordon Menzies but, it would seem, acting won out over politics. "I started acting when I was 12, I was shy and all that," says Menzies. "And I always wanted to work in the theatre, I liked language and I like the focus of concentration of the theatre, and that’s where I’ve stayed. I made it quite clear (to his parents) that that is what I was going to do."
After performing in a number of fringe productions, and other works, around Melbourne, Menzies entered NIDA. "I felt a bit strange going there. The first year it was all new and hard and you were exhausted, and the second year I really hated, but because my parents had put up with me for so long, and having dropped out of two university degrees, I felt as if I should finish that course. One of the highlights came in a class with tutor Aubrey Mellor. We were talking about acting and someone said: `What’s acting about, what’s the point of it?’ And Aubrey said, `The point is to extend the boundaries of our compassion.’ And that sounded pretty good to me."
Menzies has, of course, starred in many TV and film roles including: 3 Acts of Murder, Three Dollars, Monash and the Anzac Legend and Triple Happiness but he says that his three decades in theatre have proved an exciting and satisfying journey. "There’ve been things that have been so monumentally hard that your life is kind of ruled by them for a while; when you’re doing major pieces of work like Oedipus or Peer Gynt, there’s not much room in your life for anything else, and it can take you a while to get over them. I did Macbeth a few years ago and it was a very extreme production but I was completely happy because I was getting it out every night. I don’t choose what I do, I’m just a shit-kicker who takes what they’re given."
The End by Samuel Beckett at The Cub Malthouse 113 Sturt St Southbank. February 17 – March 11, 2010. Booking info: www.malthousetheatre.com.au