Theatre review: The End, Traverse, Edinburgh

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IN THE absence of faith, most human beings find it hard to contemplate their own end.

What distinguishes Samuel Beckett as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century is the unswerving courage with which he inhabits that debatable land between life and death, speech and silence, being and not being. And to that courage he adds the gift of perfectly observed detail that belongs only to the greatest poets; his characters all face oblivion, but they are all different, in their history, language and dreams.

Written in Paris around 1946, The End – presented at the Traverse this weekend by Dublin-based actor Conor Lovett and his Gare St Lazare company – is a magnificently well-made short story that looks forward to Beckett’s 1953 masterpiece Waiting For Godot, in that its central figure is a tramp. The speaker is an old down-and-out who is released from a care institution with a suit of clothes and a little money, to live stoically through the last months or years of his life. Floating between memory and reality, and too filthy and far gone to seek human company, he lives out his time on the margins of society, present in the world, yet no longer part of it.

Yet, as Lovett’s exquisite 80-minute solo performance makes clear, this man on the edge of oblivion remains completely human, capable of great irritations and small pleasures, and of an increasingly intense relationship with the natural world. The quality of Beckett’s writing is extraordinary, full of soaring lyricism, brutal frankness, tender detail and – towards the end – daring gaps and silences. And in Lovett’s small, poised yet fragile figure, the character Beckett has created finds a perfect theatrical expression; in a show which affirms that, at its heart, theatre needs no more than this – the performer, the audience and the narrative that binds them together, in the struggle to face the approaching darkness, without despair.

Rating: ****