The characters' relationship crystallizes in one memorable instant in the middle of the play when Clov reaches over the arm of Hamm's chair and touches the old man's shoulder. "Will it not soon be the end?" Clov asks. This moment is remarkable: Beckett is a stickler for stage directions and he repeatedly denies his characters the right to touch. But more importantly, in a world where physical contact no longer exists (Nagg and Nell can't kiss because their bins are too far apart, and Clov repeatedly refuses to touch Hamm when asked) this tiny gesture carries overwhelming significance. It blows a hole in the inhuman wall of the play.
Yet the inhumanity of Endgame is what gives the work its power. One of Beckett's most brilliant heirs, the Irish playwright-turned-filmmaker Martin McDonagh, leverages this dispassionate quality to great effect in his 1996 play The Beauty Queen of Leenane. Like Endgame but with female characters, Beauty Queen takes place in a claustrophobic room and focuses on the relationship between Mag, a manipulative, demanding old lady, and Maureen, the daughter forced to take care of her. But while Clov leaves at the end of Beckett's play, Maureen is compelled to take more sadistic measures in McDonagh's. Meanwhile, we have become so involved in the relationship between Mag and Maureen that the ending provides a perfect shock to the system. What was familiar territory now seems frighteningly strange.
Nagg (Paul Gerrior) and Nell (Maureen Coyne) are happy with their miserable existence.
Conversely, Melrose's attempt to make the strange familiar through focusing on relationships and playing for empathy ultimately sabotages Beckett's play. We need to feel as alienated from the characters as they are from each other in order to allow Beckett's death rattle to shudder through our bones. Our heightened sense of familiarity with the characters and their situation makes them too easy to read. A little distance, a dose of cold abstraction is what's needed here. There may, upon closer examination, be certain advantages to thinking of a Beckett play as 23 blank pieces of paper arranged in a small pile.