Maybe it’s a little histrionic to stage a play about existence and extinction right now. Maybe not. If director Richard Jones does have anything to say about the state of the world through Samuel Beckett’s play, it’s that it’s all so absurd. On the tears-clown spectrum, his production is all laughs, milked mercilessly from a play whose bleakness often wins out.
For some reason, the evening starts with Beckett’s 30-minute rarity Rough For Theatre II, in which two bureaucrats – possibly angels – assess a man’s life in the moment before he jumps from a sixth floor window. Alan Cumming and Daniel Radcliffe are fine, but the play earns its place much less than Endgame, and it’s difficult to fathom why we’re watching it at all.
Then the main attraction, Endgame. Hamm is blind and unable to stand up, his parents live in dustbins by his chair, and his manservant Clov staggers around doing his bidding in some place near the end of the world. With Cumming a captivating Hamm and Radcliffe a spry, tightly-coiled Clov, vibrancy and vitality are in abundance here, despite the fact that the play is about the death of everything. In the midst of death we are in life, suggests Jones.
With fearful restrictions still in place on the staging of Beckett’s work, lest a lawsuit comes-a-calling, designer Stewart Laing and lighting designer Adam Silverman strip all texture from their designs to focus us towards the performances themselves. Here, Nell and Nagg aren’t caked in make-up, Clov isn’t some galumphing Gumby. The modern-ish room looks bare and cheap, the light is one bright, headache-inducing hue like a hospital ward.
Cumming’s Hamm is the biggest ham Hamm has been. He elongates lines and chatters through others, camp as some arch-villain in a kids’ cartoon and his own self-parody. He’s imperious without any sense of authority, the ridiculous despot of his own tiny kingdom, capricious and pathetic. What sets him apart from so many other Hamms is how animated he seems. When the world around him is dead or dying, he can’t help but stay miserably, piercingly alive. To have that much charisma while sitting in a chair is impressive.
A misstep is the chair’s design, which hides Cumming’s real legs and gives him prosthetic wasted ones instead. It not only looks fake, but also makes Hamm’s inability to walk a focal point, and begs the question: why didn’t they just cast a disabled actor?
Jane Horrocks in wrinkly prosthetics and Karl Johnson are on strong comic form as Nell and Nagg, milking their roles but never overdoing it. All anguish and agony is confined to Radcliffe’s character. Radcliffe plays Clov like he’s a real human being planted – stranded – among caricatures. While Johnson and Horrocks comically mope, while Cumming drawls and declaims, Radcliffe reacts by tensing like a clockwork toy that Cumming winds just to see if he’ll break.
Jones breathes new life into a play at risk of choking on its own aspic. By majoring on comedy, he shows how even at the bitter end, maybe especially then, life remains completely absurd.