It is a great time for Samuel Beckett fans, a highly acclaimed triple bill is running at the Jermyn Street Theatre and this week the Old Vic adds a double bill of Endgame and Rough for Theatre II which opens to the press tomorrow, welcoming Daniel Radcliffe back to the theatre where his starring role in Tom Stoppard’s Hamlet homage three years ago was warmly received. Joining him after more than a decade away from the West End is Alan Cumming lured back to London by these less-frequently performed Beckett works and Matthew Warchus’s theatre which is enjoying an exceptional run of form.
For some time now, the Old Vic has programmed a series of unmissable hits while attracting some of the biggest stars of stage and screen. The superb All My Sons last April was the highlight of a much wider presentation of Arthur Miller’s work and starred West End debutantes Bill Pullman, Sally Field and Jenna Coleman alongside theatre devotee Colin Morgan. Noel Coward was given a spritz of modern spice and morality with an outstanding version of Present Laughter with an exemplary Andrew Scott at the helm which was then replaced by stars of The Crown, Claire Foy and Matt Smith who have earned a Broadway transfer for parental drama Lungs. And with Timothee Chalamet appearing with Eileen Atkins in their next play 4000 Miles, the Old Vic is almost unrivaled in its shrewd combination of modern twentieth and twenty-first century classics with all-star casts.
Rough for Theatre II
Beckett, then, should be in safe hands and the evening begins with Rough For Theatre II, a slight drama in length if not in meaning. At only 25-minutes this is a little performed if engrossing piece as two bureaucrats debate the life and worth of a suicide case to determine whether or not the man should jump. Like Pinter, Beckett’s choices are very specific, using vocabulary, sentence structure, movement and stage directions to create a precise and controlled effect, choosing at what point the actors move or react to the slowly changing perspective within the story.
Here in Rough for Theatre II, designer Stewart Laing sets the entire piece on a small apron appended to the front of the stage in front of the main curtain where two small square desks and chairs face each other on opposite ends of the room. Each symmetrical desk has a lamp which becomes integral to the plot while the centre is dominated by a figure standing on the precipice of an open window – the entire effect has a soulless American classic theme, a place of formality and governance, but also of emptiness and hopelessness.
Laing simultaneously creates space and confinement around the three figures, suggesting the official distance of executive authority that allows the two men to speak with distracted formality, almost dismissal while arguing for the man’s death, yet the narrowed playing space, the long thin strip of stage at the same time moves the characters into each other’s space to clearly uncomfortable effect. It is briskly managed and Richard Jones as director emphasises the emotional interior of the antagonists while exploring the shifting relationship between them as it considers their pride in their work, attention to minutiae, individual fears and growing frustrations.
Character A who is sometimes known as Bertrand, played here by Radcliffe, is entirely at ease with himself and his role in determining Character C / Croker’s fate, while cross-questioning and redirecting his colleague with a quiet authority. Playing the straighter role here, the characterisation could appear fairly one-sided but Radcliffe hints at Bertrand’s discomfort at Morven’s physical proximity when circumstance force them together, but intriguingly feels no similar concern as he daringly hangs from the window-frame to observe Croker.
By contrast Cumming’s Character B / Morven is more highly strung, nervy and easily distracted from his purpose by faulty wiring, the unduly elaborate grammar of witness statements and a notional attraction to Bertrand. Sporting a slightly exaggerated version of his natural Scotch, Cumming squirms and rages, the opposite of Radcliffe’s placidity which ties the two characters inexorably together as they explore the ‘organic waste’ of life. It’s short but filled with meaningful phraseology that references death, how easily life is reduced to accumulated paragraphs of evidence and the implacable nature of fate.
After an interval, Laing’s new set for Endgame marries domesticity with post-apocalyptic doom in a grey walled structure very similar to Soutra Gilmour’s boxy set for Betrayal. The characters are enclosed or, more appropriately, entombed in the room of an empty but still recognisable home with small curtained windows raised high in the wall that gives a basement or prison-feel to the piece while offering plenty of comic potential when these portals to the equally gloomy but unseen exterior are accessed. The room is completed with a central armchair and two steel-grey wheelie bins carved into the stage-front.
Endgame is a strange and difficult absurdist play which runs at approximately 85-minutes as a master and servant play-out what seem to be a repetitive routine while believing their story is soon to end for the last time. There is no plot as such, nor really chapters to mark different stages of the play, so instead Beckett creates a flow of interactions that mix tales of past and present told from the perspective of different characters, while examining the isolation and loneliness that seeks forms of companionship and storytelling as the last refuge of the human condition. What you feel so strongly in this play is how repeated requests for silence and peace are always overcome by the need to interact, to be heard even in the crotchety exchanges between men who have lived together too long.
In this second piece, Jones changes the tone entirely and instantly a pin-drop silence falls over the auditorium as the strangeness of the scenario is felt before it is understood. And across the play there is a cyclical action as the characters explore the connectedness of life and death, with the one naturally leading back to the other. This means that although the chair-bound Hamm and his servant Clov repeatedly express a desire to terminate their mutually-dependent association, they are forever unable to really do so.
A sense of repetition dogs the play from the start as Clov mechanically moves between the windows attempting to draw the curtains while forgetting the stepladder or failing to remember he has performed the task before – an amusing opening that eases the audience into the slightly strange existence of these men. But there is also a feeling of routine, of how frequently the characters have performed the same action or had the same conversation, as if by rote each day. This happens at several points through the stories they tell one another in which endings seem impossible such as the tailor unable to complete a pair of trousers and as Clov wheels his master around the room, bringing scraps of food and amusement.
Time, therefore, punctuates their interaction with Hamm frequently asking whether his ‘pain pills’ are due, knowing when the next chapter of his story is ready to be unveiled and in a more pointed reference to the passing minutes an alarm clock is introduction to signify the end of their time together. Beckett’s love of ambiguity never allows the audience to know whether this is just another day enacting the same unchanging routine or whether their pattern and interaction has degraded over time and is indeed in its final phase. There are multiple suggestions that humanity itself is at an end, with only ‘gloom’ and no living creatures, no sign of nature or climate beyond the walls where impossibility of species regeneration is clear. Jones suggests they could be the last humans alive merely passing the time until the end releases them all for good.
As Hamm, Cumming offers a quite fascinating performance, a character playing a one-sided game of chess in which he will be both the ultimate winner and its loser as he undergoes various changes in mood across the period of the play. Hamm can be many things all at once, charming and likeable, a suggestion of a interesting active life lived long ago, but also demanding, spoiled and entitled, determined to assert his knowing authority over his servant while never wanting to appear at any disadvantage from his inability to walk or see. Cumming plays him almost as a stream of consciousness, a rambling association of stories, demands and thoughts that fluidly shift and expand as he becomes more talkative.
There is also a more existential strand to Hamm, musing on the nature of his life and its meaning that draws out an unexpected softness. There is a subtle fathers and sons theme with Hamm needing the interaction with his father – Nagg (an excellent and meaningful Karl Johnson) – who lives in one of the bins and is enticed out to engage with his son, or more accurately to listen to his speechifying in return for edible rewards. Theirs is a difficult relationship, one which the elder evidently regrets but neither can relinquish. This is given a greater depth when Hamm indicates that Clov is almost a son to him, someone for whom he feels responsibility and even care for a fleeting moment as Cumming introduces plenty of light and shade, finding a softer, needier dimension to Hamm who recognises the necessity of others to his own stability, even if he cannot wholly reconcile or admit those feelings to himself or them.
It is impossible to be anything but impressed by the theatre and film choices that Daniel Radcliffe has made in recent years, and it’s always abundantly clear on stage how hard he works in preparing and exploring his characters. He was excellent – and very funny – as Rosencrantz in 2017, while his Clov here in Endgame is a much more physically demanding role that requires a crooked shape and inability to bend at the knees that affects his walk and posture throughout the play. There is something of the obsequious horror-film butler about Clov, an oddity whose relentless plod and awkward way with a stepladder allows Radcliffe to indulge in some broader comic tics that make his character both strange and sympathetic.
It is also a smart performance, and one that draws out Clov’s growing irritation at Hamm’s demands. The intellectual battles between master and servant are reasonably one-sided and Radcliffe finds all the resentful duty that his character feels in being unable to resist any demands. Yet this Clov also knows there is power in his presence and the threat of removing himself from Hamm is his only means of control, one that grows as Radcliffe’s Clov becomes increasingly frustrated with his own behaviour as the play unfolds. The authoritarian dynamic between them is quite different from Rough for Theatre II, but Radcliffe successfully navigates both in another interesting stage appearance.
Like many Theatre of the Absurd pieces (see also the recent Exit the King), these are not easy plays to navigate and Endgame in particular is a challenging watch. Beckett’s work is largely thematic and not something that prioritises narrative or character development which can be tricky if you’re looking for something with a beginning, middle and an end. While Waiting for Godot is the most performed and influential of Beckett’s plays, Jones’s productions are hugely atmospheric with much to be taken from the strangeness of the settings and fine characterful performances which should please Beckett fans as well as providing plenty of thoughtful material for the journey home. Very interesting place the Old Vic at the moment, and these latest revivals suggest that this theatre is far from entering its endgame.