Endgame in a double bill with Rough for Theatre II
The Old Vic, London,
Writer: Samuel Beckett
Director: Richard Jones
Cast: Alan Cumming, Daniel Radcliffe, Jane Horrocks, Karl Johnson, Suzy King, Jackson Milner, David Tarkenter
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes, including interval
Dates of run: until March 28
As we sat down expectantly in the plush red velvet of the Old Vic waiting for the curtain to go up on Endgame, my fellow theatre-goer asked the most pertinent of questions: “Is it funny?” The answer is a resounding yes, but in the peculiar Beckettian sense. We laugh at the farce of human existence. We laugh to take ourselves beyond tragedy and annihilate the pain of extinction and because, as Endgame’s character Nell puts it: “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness”.
Richard Jones’ direction verges on the callous, but that is praise, not criticism when laughter and embracing theatrical make-believe are just as legitimate a response to our absurdity as dwelling on the multi-layered meaningfulness of Beckett’s language and its potential to stir deep, human empathy.
In times when we spend our days fretting about the destruction of our planet, it’s strangely therapeutic to laugh at a world in which any hope of procreation is delusional, nature has been wiped out, the dying humans are losing whatever faculties they have left and relationships boil down to abuse of power and need.
Daniel Radcliffe, who as Clov has sloughed off his Harry Potter past once and for all, earns most of the laughs. Adept at physical comedy, he hauls himself around Stewart Laing’s perfectly-judged grey set with windows so high you could be in a prison cell. Every movement, we’re told, is painful, but that doesn’t stop our guffaws.
Clov’s foil is the blind Hamm, played by Alan Cumming, who is locked in a chair and given wasted legs that dangle uselessly. His arms flail in frustration and exasperation, but mere self-pity would be an admission of weakness and, although utterly dependent on Clov to describe what is left of the world and to feed and water him, the joke is that he behaves like a tyrant. Clov responds as a slave with no will of his own.
Their roles have been perfectly rehearsed over years of shared resentment. The dramatic tension ensues from the sense they are about to break out, with the only real options to die or to leave.
The finer feelings are dying with the older generation, Hamm’s parents Nagg and Nell, who live out their final hours in dustbins.
Karl Johnson (Nagg) and Jane Horrocks (Nell) win us over with their broken memories and charming attempts to kiss each other over the dustbin rims.
It’s nearly heart-breaking, but Clov and, especially Hamm, put an end to the emotional richness.
Hamm’s only hint of filial concern is to hesitate about ordering the nailing down of the dustbin lids.
The theatrical brilliance of Endgame is thrown into relief by Jones’ decision to precede it with the rarely performed Rough for Theatre II, which Beckett is believed to have written around the same time as Endgame in the late 50s.
Beckett’s greatest work considers the logic of suicide as part of a rounded narrative. Rough for Theatre II focuses exclusively on whether the character (Jackson Milner as C) silhouetted in a window should jump and in contrast to the windows in Endgame, it’s a big, gaping window.
Again, the comedy derives from the heartlessness as Radcliffe and Cumming, as characters A and B, consult the case files on the life of the potential victim and whether he should go on living. The result is inconclusive.
Barbara Lewis © 2020.