Michael Pinchbeck’s The End takes its cue from the most famous Shakespearean stage direction of all: Exit pursued by a bear. Building on a collaborative project from 2008 entitled Beginning Middle End, the piece takes the form of a two-hander between Pinchbeck and Ollie Smith. This is Pinchbeck’s purported final piece for the theatre, his resignation letter and swansong, and it is also, we are repeatedly told, Smith’s first piece.
Endings are a necessity in narrative art – full stops, gun shots, the final fall of the curtain – and Pinchbeck’s piece is a meditation on endings and exits, on knowing when to draw a line, and on understanding when an ending is, in actuality, part of a process, a cycle, a longer story. The show is given shape and pace by stacks of index cards piled at the back of the stage. Pinchbeck seems to read from these, flinging them to the floor when he’s finished or – occasionally – throwing them into the air and creating a Nabokovian cascade. Snow-flaked on the black floor they also add a visual dimension to what is at first a fairly minimalist aesthetic and by the end of The End the stage is littered with them.
Dressing up in a budget bear suit, Pinchbeck portrays an actor backstage, waiting for his cue, his moment of glory, his chance to chase. But not before he has delighted in making Smith don the suit and dance until he is gasping for breath. A recurring motif is of death by gunfire: ready, aim, fire, and a toppling body. The piece is full of little symmetries and repetitions; it has an apt circularity: when the bear gives chase both Pinchbeck and Smith end up standing back in the original spot from which they started.
In this way The End is as much about continuity as finality, about the relationship between mentor and mentee, master and apprentice, father and son even. There’s a sense of bitterness in the knowledge that one will be overtaken but also a sense of pragmatism (or maybe just resignation) in the face of the inevitable. Gradually the dynamic between Pinchbeck and Smith begins to shift; at first the former is the superior, the elder, the one in control, but the power balance starts to falter as the baton is passed and Smith displays a certain glee in making Pinchbeck play out the same scenes over again with the roles reversed: the bear dance, the death scenes. The recurrence of certain phrases underlines this sense of progression, the awareness that in passing something on one is often nudged into the background.
While there is much humour in the interactions between Pinchbeck and Smith, the piece also has a self-interrogating quality, drawing attention to the processes of its making, its aims and its motifs. Though occasionally blunt in its methods and perhaps overshooting its natural endpoint (though this is at least thematically apt), this is an elegantly structured, thought-provoking and coolly resonant piece.
Then we came to the end.
Except we don’t. Or, rather, they don’t; as the house lights rise, Pinchbeck and Smith return to their seats among the debris of index cards. We leave the theatre before they do.
The End can be seen at the Green Room, Manchester, on 20th May. For tickets, visit the Green Room website.