Parkinson’s disease is a slowly progressing, degenerative disease caused by the loss of dopamine-producing brain cells. Normally, dopamine assists smooth and co-ordinated muscle movement. In its absence, the patient suffers from tremors, rigidity in the limbs, slowness of movement as well as impaired balance and co-ordination. The disease has no known cause. There is currently no cure.
Dan Moran and Chris Jones are New York actors. They are both suffering from Parkinson’s. The Endgame Project is a documentary that charts the attempt of these two actors to perform Beckett’s Endgame. Their performance of the play ran for two nights in 2012, but the documentary was filmed post-production. It had its first showing in Phoenix, Arizona to an audience of Parkinson’s patients, nurses and family members. The second screening took place last Friday, on the final day of the Samuel Beckett Summer School in Trinity to an audience of Beckett scholars, enthusiasts and dramaturges. The Endgame Project is an attempt to humanise the clinical manifestations of Parkinson’s disease.
The documentary itself was well filmed, with the cinematography attempting to bring us into the world of the patient as much as possible. The camera often shook with jagged movements as we stumbled through the rehearsal rooms. At certain points the peripheral focus of the camera would dissipate, leaving only a small sphere of clearly discernable objects. However, the audience on Friday rightly suggested that the documentary would preferably have included some of the original performance of the play itself. Another criticism raised in the discussion after the screening was an observation that the soundtrack noticeably led the emotions of the audience. Perhaps it would have been better with no soundtrack at all. How very Beckettian would it have been to fill the spaces with silence.
According to the actors, Endgame is as close to an accurate portrayal of what it is to live with Parkinson’s as one can get. Moran and Jones likened the disease to being locked in a room. Due to decreased mobility some patients have difficulty standing, others have difficulty sitting down. There is no certainty of existence from one day to the next. Drawing on these similarities with their own experiences, the two actors, with their rapidly diminishing physical abilities, decided to play two characters who also have rapidly diminishing physical abilities. But they wanted to push the boundaries of what they could achieve, so they cast themselves against their strengths. Parkinson’s disease has affected Moran’s memory and clarity of speech, so he took the part of Hamm, which has the most lines. Jones, on the other hand, is now extremely restricted in his mobility and so he played Clov, which required the greater agility.
Moran and Jones had a schedule of four hours of rehearsals each day over a four-week rehearsal period. But they didn’t know whether their energies might fail at the last minute. On the night of the performance Moran could become jaw locked or Jones could lose all flexibility in his limbs. But that wasn’t the point. The point was that they were in a position where they could use art to mirror the difficulty of their lives, living with Parkinson’s, which we all struggle to fully appreciate. Anyone can Google the symptoms of a disease, a doctor can monitor the pathological changes under its influence, but how much does that actually tell us about what it is like to suffer from an illness? Who better than Beckett to help us understand the human condition? He is not one to sugarcoat anything with niceties. Beckett reduces the human condition down to its final denominator: Am I hot or cold? Should I speak or stay silent? There is something ironically comforting in this. The entire crux of Endgame is that no matter what, you must go on, or rather, no matter what, you have no choice but to go on.
Jones made the point that as an actor you are never far away from yourself in the part you play. Between yourself and the character a new person is created in each role that is performed. So, by taking on the characteristics of Hamm and Clov, Moran and Jones found they could understand themselves a bit better. Only through their interpretation of the play as a metaphor of Parkinson’s can we analyse Beckett’s work in a new light. The reality of their conditions brought a new dimension to the fear of the characters. The words they are reciting take on a new levity:
“What’s he doing?”
“Then he’s living.”
The most heart-wrenching moment during the documentary came when Moran was attempting to remember his lines during the dress rehearsal. The shot showed a five-minute clip of Moran requiring a prompt for each one of his cues. Before the screening, I was talking to a friend of mine who is also an actor and mime artist suffering from Parkinson’s and who had joined me for the event. He told me about a little exercise that he uses to remember words that his mind is determined to hide from him. He writes out the letters of the alphabet, places them in order and then flicks through them over and over, trying to relax his mind until finally the word comes to him. He couldn’t mask his pride: “There are only so many combinations you see, the word is always there. I know it. I just don’t know that I know it.”
The documentary is not yet fully completed. The final cut will potentially include at least 15 minutes of the performance of Endgame itself. After a few more test-viewings, it will go on to be shown to medical professionals and those studying medicinal disciplines in an attempt to remind doctors that each illness is more than just a list of anabolic changes. There are rumours that the original production will be revived. This would add to an increasingly popular trend of using immersive theatre to help audiences understand the reality of common medical conditions. What was vital to the success of the documentary thus far, was the fact that it highlighted Moran and Jones as actors first and patients second. It also brought to light the danger of “ Michael J Fox Effect” – Jones’s wife remarked that “we don’t have the endless supply of sunshine, money and pharmaceuticals to keep us all happy”.
The Endgame Project manages to strike the perfect balance between accurately portraying the human aspect of Parkinson’s while also showing actors and artists suffering from the disease that they needn’t relinquish their hold on their talents just yet. This disease comes with “a persistent frustration”, even the good days aren’t actually all that great. But what can you do about that? At the end of the documentary Jones poses the question: What are Hamm and Clov doing as they wait for the end? The answer is, of course, the only thing they know how to do – perform.