Endgame (Old Vic)

There are numerous productions of Samuel Beckett’s work taking place across London this year: perhaps the most high profile is this one which has tempted both Alan Cumming and Daniel Radcliffe back to the UK stage.

The absurdist plays of this Irish dramatist are certainly not for everyone, but both Rough For Theatre II and Endgame have rich veins of humour within the bleakness which come to the fore in these Old Vic revivals.

Essentially two-handers (although Rough For Theatre II has the silent character C who stands motionless in the window, faced away from us, for the entire half hour, and Endgame has small parts for the elderly parents literally treated as rubbish) these plays really stand or fall on the quality of the performances.

Jackson Milner, Alan Cumming, Daniel Radcliffe in Rough For Theatre II
Jackson Milner, Alan Cumming, Daniel Radcliffe in Rough For Theatre II

Cumming is the more showy performer. In Rough For Theatre II he is a nervous Scot given to frankness and oversharing; in Endgame he is the blind, crippled and selfish Hamm, a camp and disturbing creation which hides a fear of the unknown behind dark glasses and a calm exterior always on the verge of cracking apart.

Radcliffe is officious and practical as the second celestial bureaucrat in Rough For Theatre II, shuffling his files and addressing the conundrum of whether C should jump or not in a detached, professional manner. In Endgame he is Clov, the servant who drags his twisted frame back and forth, up and down stepladders, and into the kitchen we don’t see where he stands looking at the walls.

Hamm can’t stand – a fact underlined by giving Cumming withered prosthetic legs – and Clov cannot sit. They are stuck in a world with nothing outside, two windows which look out on blankness, supplies which have run out, a sun which never seems to rise or set.

Why these men are together we never find out, or why Hamm’s parents Nell and Nagg (Jane Horrocks and Karl Johnson) are living in their strange situation. Cumming’s Hamm plays to the audience, an actor who misses his public – he even bribes his father at one point to listen to an interminable story. He’s a hideous creation, yet pitiful, too.

Jane Horrocks and Karl Johnson in Endgame
Jane Horrocks and Karl Johnson in Endgame

As twin musings on the nature of life, death, and companionship, these two plays make a good pairing. In Rough For Theatre II, an additional artifice is employed with the red curtain visible behind the set, perhaps to underline the transience and roughness of the piece.

Richard Jones directs both pieces, with Stewart Laing’s grey sets catching the eye and underlining the bleakness, without overpowering Beckett’s clever text. Sarah Fahie should also be mentioned for her work on character movement, so crucial to both pieces.

Rough For Theatre II and Endgame are running at the Old Vic until 28 March 2020. Photo credits by Manuel Harlan.

LouReviews purchased a ticket to see the Beckett double-bill at the Old Vic.