November 30, 2009

Endgame, Duchess Theatre

Left Rather Empty At The End

3 stars

In Beckett’s Endgame, things have an uncanny capacity to run out. We get a sense of life lasting for an allocated time, of resources being non-renewable, and of characters encountering multiple ‘ends’ – the sugar plums have finished, bicycles are simply no more, and the pain killer bottle is totally empty. What Beckett creates here – unlike in Waiting for Godot where life goes on because of unending self-perpetuation – is a sense of a floor which keeps slipping suddenly from under you: every step you tread may be that fatal step on the disused land mine.

Endgame is a deeply philosophical and psychological play, which means – as with most of Beckett’s works – it’s notoriously difficult to pull off, especially in a large West End theatre where audiences tend to have a less trained ear than those that migrate to the Fringe theatres. Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan managed it marvellously in the recent Godot, but this is owing to their mighty experience and unusually strong acting ability.

Mark Rylance and Simon McBurney, by contrast, struggle to wholly grasp their roles. Rylance plays Hamm as a sarcastic, attention-seeking retired actor, although he barely looks old enough to be at this point of nostalgic self-reflection. He is sardonic to the extreme that he mocks Beckett’s very writing and his character’s affectation, which makes us think that Hamm doesn’t take himself, or life, that seriously. Limp-legged in his grand wheelchair, Rylance plays Hamm as nevertheless very mobile from the waist up, contorting in his chair like a stubborn weed that is trying to grow around annoyingly heavy rocks. His extreme fluctuation in vocal projection feels at times too abrupt and obstructs the music and potency of Beckett’s dialogue. Simon McBurney as Clov, on the other hand, gets off to a rip-roaring start with a hilariously executed physical sequence, made funnier by his character’s apparent forgetfulness, which leads to multiple painstaking repetitions. Repeatedly climbing a ladder while accommodating a gammy leg in order to see out of the high windows, McBurney (who also directs this production) immediately captures the futility of Clov’s now fading existence. Popping out of two dustbins are Hamm’s parents: Tom Hickey as Nagg and Miriam Margolis as Nell, the latter who is like a dopey fly, very occasionally buzzing, but essentially preparing itself for death. By contrast, Ned fizzes with angry life, rotating furiously in his bin like a toy that has been wound up too tight and barking in frustration at Hamm.

All of the play’s characters have mobility issues, which lead to a powerlessness and dependence on others. As Clov says, he can’t sit down and Hamm can’t stand up. Interestingly though, it is only Clov who has no real dependence on the other characters – he brings biscuits for the bin folk and attends to the blind Hamm as a carer. He also provides the only commentary on the outside world from his ladder vantage point, and so slants the perception of the other characters. Therefore, the only dependence that Clov suffers from is psychological and, as a result, the most puzzling, as he himself acknowledges: why does he continue to obey Hamm? Clov gives no answer.

With this in mind, I felt the psychological complexity is absent from McBurney’s performance, though he is undoubtedly endearing and, at times, breaks into tantrums of frustration. Why do people stay if they don’t have to? Most of Beckett’s characters suffer from this phenomenon; the others are physically stuck in situations and simply cannot go.

This is a well-attempted production, in which the cavernous stage of the Duchess Theatre is effectively used to capture the absurd cesspit in which son keeps father and mother in dustbins, while he pisses himself in his chair, tells anecdotes about his past, and begs for his painkillers. But the two main actors need to stop over-acting and have a deeper investigation into what Beckett is actually doing in this notoriously difficult play. That way, we may come a little closer to understanding it.

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