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Theatre: How deep can deep be?: 'Endgame' is back. But what does it mean? Robert Butler conducts his own exit poll

IN THE audience tonight is the ex-England footballer and Crystal Palace manager, Steve Coppell. He arrives early and sits in the bar with a beer. A friend has warned him that this is going to be deep. 'But, I thought, how deep can deep be?' Coppell finishes his drink and heads in to BAC Studio Theatre One. On stage, sheets cover the set. A light picks up a bearded actor, in woollen vest and braces, staring into the middle of nowhere. Coppell takes one look and thinks: 'This is deep. Before it starts, it's deep.'

The play is Endgame by Samuel Beckett (written six years after Waiting for Godot). Two of the four characters live in dustbins, another is blind and immobile, the fourth has trouble walking and can't sit down. If Godot, famously, is a play where nothing happens, twice, Endgame is one where very little happens rather more often. First performed in Britain in 1957, it has not been seen in London since Max Wall's revival at the Riverside Studios in 1986. Endgame sees more life in the classroom (it's an A-level text) than on stage. This new touring production from the Fair Play Theatre Company - warmly received by the critics - is therefore welcome.

But what of the people who haven't read the Student's Guide and might not guess, for instance, that the very first words ('Finished, it's finished') are an allusion to Christ on the cross ('It is finished'). What do they make of it?

'I hadn't a clue what I was going to see,' says Reverend Nigel Stone, vicar of St Paul's, Brixton. His friends told him that tonight it was going to be Beckett. A third of the way in, he will probably wonder if it was a good idea to come. 'In the job that I do, with funerals and things, the theatre is a recreation.'

A colleague at the BBC recommended Endgame to Tessa Livingstone, a documentary-maker. She knew 'it would be dour, and a comment on life, and something where nothing very obvious happens.' And that didn't put you off? 'No, the thing I'm afraid of, when I go to the theatre, is finding it tacky or crass.'

It took Cyril Shrubb, a pensioner who lives in Brixton, a while to get into Endgame. 'When I did, I really enjoyed it. It's so true to life. The old couple, I've seen them. It's Josie and old Fred down the road. She talks like that.'

THE BEARDED figure in braces shuffles round the stage stripping away the sheets to reveal two dustbins and a pallid figure in a dressing-gown, seated on a throne. We could be anywhere. 'I thought it was post-holocaust. That's where I positioned it,' says Livingstone. It reminds Coppell of 'a dark, dank basement', like the one in his grandmother's home in Liverpool.

The figure in the dressing-gown, Hamm (John Quentin), and his servant Clov (Peter Bourke) quickly lapse into bickering. Meanwhile Rev Stone tries to answer some questions: 'What's the period? What's the context? How do the characters relate to one another?' Coppell gives up on that 'pretty early on'. When Hamm takes the handkerchief off his face and wipes his dark glasses, Coppell decides to 'just let this happen, rather than trying to understand it'.

No one knows quite when to laugh, and when not to. 'On a superficial level,' says Livingstone, 'the words are meaningless, so you are looking for deeper meaning and worried that you might be missing something.'

A new thought occurs to Coppell. It's as if someone is coming back from the pub each night and writing down whatever the topic of conversation had been. Endgame couldn't have been written in one sitting. 'It sounds as if he wrote it in that haze between drunk and sober'.

Each week Cyril Shrubb visits his sister at an old people's home. 'I don't know whether John Quentin went down and studied all that,' he says, 'because he's got it off pat. The way of folding the handkerchief on his knees.'

Shrubb has seen it all before: the shifting, the fiddling, the endless tetchy demands (wanting the window open, then wanting it closed). 'I'm not making this up. All those old people do those sorts of things. And the way Hamm screams and shouts. I had a little tear. Because I saw my sister doing that on Thursday.'

Ten minutes in, Hamm's parents, Nagg (Brian Matthew) and Nell (Pamela Wickington), emerge from the dustbins. 'As soon as they came out with those white hats,' says Coppell, 'I thought, oh, Bill and Ben, the flowerpot men.'

Later, Nagg discovers that Nell has died in her dustbin. 'They do die like that, old people. They're castaways,' says Cyril Shrubb. 'They sit in a chair and it might as well be a dustbin. Someone goes to wake them up, and say it's time to go to bed, and they've died.'

The sheer repetitiveness reminds Livingstone, a single parent (her husband died last year), of something her daughter said. She wanted to know why she had to get dressed every morning. Getting dressed was boring. 'Everyday life essentially is very dull: it's getting dressed and doing the washing. It's a tribute to the power of the imagination that you go on being interested.'

Seventy-five minutes in, Nigel Stone realises that Clov is going to leave Hamm. 'The play didn't have a clear structure anyway. He had to leave otherwise we would have been there all night.'

What, if anything, did it all mean? Beckett said 'the play doesn't happen only in one person's mind'. It turns out to mean different things for different people. For Stone the play was a challenging comment on secular society. Hamm tells the others to pray, then stops the prayer: 'The bastard] He doesn't exist]' Stone thought it raises 'profound questions about the futility of life'.

For Coppell the play was 'just a total piss-take'. For Livingstone: 'I don't think it would work if it wasn't static.

You have to experience it to feel it. Life

is remorseless. I see this look on mothers who are also career women. This look, as if there isn't any space. There's just

no let-up.'

Cyril Shrubb is aware that younger people may not see it in the same light as he does. 'I see it as the real thing.'

'Endgame': Battersea Arts Centre, SW11, 071-223 2223, to Sun 13 Mar; then Sheffield Crucible Studio, 0742 769922, 15-19 Mar.

(Photograph omitted)