Master and servant: how Tania Bruguera is using Beckett to dismantle power

Rob Sharp
April 11, 2017

From: Sharp, Rob. “Master and servant: how Tania Bruguera is using Beckett to dismantle power” The Guardian. April 11, 2017.

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Master and servant: how Tania Bruguera is using Beckett to dismantle power

Rob Sharp

Later this month, visitors to a 17th-century monastery in Porto, Portugalwill venture through a forest of scaffolding, climb stairs to take their seats and place their heads through holes in a giant piece of fabric. Below this circle of disembodied faces, an actor will stare out from the stage, pause and laugh.

This elaborate performance of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame is the directorial debut of Cuban artist and activist Tania Bruguera, who has had plenty of seismic geopolitical changes to occupy her of late. Her 2008 work Tatlin’s Whisper #5, a live microphone inviting the public to participate in one minute of free speech, led to her detention by the Cuban authorities in December 2014. Last April, she raised over $100,000 (£80,500) via crowdfunding for Cuba’s first Institute of Art Activism. In October, she announced she would run for president of Cuba when Raúl Castro steps down in 2018, to highlight the island’s lack of democracy. Now, she turns from the state abuse of power to Beckett’s skewed take on dependency in personal relationships.

“I’m interested in how Endgame brings power dynamics into our everyday lives,” she says. “It feels relevant to see this piece today, when the world is seduced by so-called strong political figures and when democracy is abused instead of enacted. It feels like the end of a chapter.”

A friend gave Bruguera a copy of Endgame to read for the first time in 1998. “I read the play 12 or 14 times in a row, and kept going back to it over the last 20 years,” she says. “I was fascinated that I could visualise the play so clearly, but I couldn’t understand the power dynamics among the characters. Every time I read it, it looked like a different power struggle scenario, one between a father and son, a master and slave, a boss and an employee, a privileged person and an underprivileged one. In terms of agenda and knowledge, I imagined so many different outcomes and saw the relevance of the piece every time.”

The one-act play, which premiered 60years ago this month, pivots around the repetitious bond between seated Hamm and his servant Clov. Hamm’s parents, Nagg and Nell, periodically appear from lidded bins. Taunted and emotionally manipulated by Hamm, Clov frequently warns Hamm that he’ll leave him. Historic interpretations have dwelled on the play’s disavowal of meaning –“understanding it can mean nothing other than understanding its incomprehensibility,” wrote the German philosopher Theodor Adorno – but Bruguera’s perspective focuses on the power imbalances between its characters. “This version is a portrait of power and the complexity of dependency,” she says. “It’s a story of how one person can intervene in someone else’s mind. Maybe I see the piece as a revenge against totalitarian dictators – the person who is in power only has power as long as the person serving decides to serve. The domestic ambience of the piece becomes a metaphor for how easily we are trapped in these dynamics.”

Though Bruguera has tackled Endgame before in her art practice, she has not directed it as a major theatrical production. In her installation Endgame Study #7 (2006), she placed a speaker and microphone on two balconies in the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, allowing those standing at each to communicate solely with each other, at once intimate and emulating a grandstanding political speech.

Unlike Beckett’s strict stage directions and the notoriously stringent stipulations of his estate, Bruguera’s artworks partly depend on audience participation. Here spectators will approach through the scaffolding holding up their seating, an area doubling as the apparently post-apocalyptic landscape Clov repeatedly views during the play. Still in rehearsals, Bruguera is reluctant to discuss every detail of her production, but the website suggests actors may have a varying degree of familiarity with the text, a humorous nod at the sanctity of Beckett’s words. “We were very strict and completely respectful to the text and the staging, but we wanted to focus on the audience’s experience, which is not in the directions of the play,” said Bruguera. “We have been trained to think power is disconnected from our sphere of influence.”

How well this is all received by audiences in Portugal (and in Brussels, Nanterre and Hamburg during its subsequent tour) will determine, Bruguera says, whether she will try another theatre piece or return to theatrical installation art – though she would like to direct a full-length version of another tale of oppression, Bertolt Brecht’s Life of Galileo.

“What I like about Endgame is that anyone can become either character at some point,” she concludes. “We should pay attention. It’s a call to remember how to control our inner servant or our inner dictator.”

Endgame is at the Mosteiro de São Bento da Vitória, Porto, 20-21 April 2017, as part of the Biennial of Contemporary Arts (BoCA).