A double-bill of Beckett plays is always going to be a challenge, but hopefully a good one. The current Old Vic production directed by Richard Jones comes with a terrific pedigree, starring Daniel Radcliffe and Alan Cumming in one reasonably familiar play and another rarely performed piece. Does it measure up to those high expectations? Read on, gentle reader…
I admit, I’d never heard of Rough for Theatre, neither piece I or piece II – they were written in the late 1950s, in French, naturellement. Fragment deux, that opens this production, is a 25-minute snippet where two bureaucrats examine the life, worth, anxieties and achievements of a man, C, frozen in a window frame, ready to leap (presumably to his death). During the process we learn a little about this man, but we understand much more about the characters of the two office men. A (Daniel Radcliffe), clearly superior, with a natural, relaxed authority, simple clarity of thought and speech versus B (Alan Cumming), flustered, neurotic, insecure, longing to bask in the glory of being in the company of A.
Messrs Radcliffe and Cumming bring this two-hander to life as a sparklingly unsettling comedy, savage in its contempt for the fate of the man about to jump, but also revealing the strange professional relationship between the two observers. Much funnier than it had any right to be, this little play has the ability to make you laugh, cringe, and appreciate how much we clutch at straws to make life bearable. A terrific opener.
After the interval we returned for Beckett’s Endgame, or Fin-de-Partie in its original French, that stalemate end to a chess game where no one can make a meaningful move, and there’s certainly no chance of winning. Me to play, Hamm may gleefully announce, but then what? There he sits, blind, imperious, inconsequentially veering from the bland to the bullying, and all for nothing. He whistles for his servant, Clov, who attends in a flash, but is sarcastic, resentful and unhelpful, attempting to return some of the cruelty that had been handed out to him. Preserved but useless, Hamm’s parents, Nagg and Nell, inhabit their dustbins in a corner of the stage, reminiscing about the good old days, with just an old dog biscuit to eat. You can take the chess analogy as far as you like; depending on your fondness for the game it might illuminate or obscure whatever meaning you feel Beckett has written into it.
I’d never seen Endgame on stage before, but had only read it; and what feels like organised stasis on the page comes to vivid life in a way you couldn’t dream of in this stunning production. From the moment Daniel Radcliffe enters the stage and decides to open the curtains, it’s an amazing and spellbinding performance. He remembers he needs his ladder, hits himself for forgetting, then when he finally gets the ladder into place he climbs up it in a most extraordinary manner and, having opened the curtains, comes down in another, ridiculous and hilarious way; forgets the ladder, hits himself again, and so it goes on. It has the audience in hysterics. Throughout the play, Mr Radcliffe adopts a most uncomfortable, but riveting to watch, gait; bouncing, hobbling, sliding over every available surface. But much more than this, he invests Clov with a fascinating characterisation; sullen, bitter, frustrated, but alarmingly obedient and essentially impotent.
Alan Cumming’s Hamm is a truly ghastly creation, sitting on his throne (a masterful piece of design work by Stewart Laing), his withered, dangly legs reflecting his loss of power. Marvellously smug, viciously cruel, he blathers on confidingly with observations of past life, confronting Clov with petty vindictiveness; in fact, it’s a superb portrayal of a grotesque man clinging on to the wreckage of life. His patronising treatment of his parents in the bin is riddled with sneering and malice, whilst they wait, innocently and pointlessly, for something to happen. The performances of Karl Johnson as Nagg and Jane Horrocks as Nell are a pure delight, as they blink their way out of the darkness in which they are kept, fondly holding onto distant memories of escapades on the tandem in the Ardennes, or rowing on Lake Como. It’s incredibly moving how they continue to look after each other even though their lives have now come to naught.
One cavil – from Mrs Chrisparkle – Nell and Nagg’s dustbins could have done with being placed just a few inches higher on stage; someone’s big hair a few rows in front of her obscured her view of Ms Horrocks’ face throughout the play – which is a substantial and unfortunate element to miss in this production. However, with razor-sharp direction and pinpoint accurate performances, this double-bill converts two difficult-to-appreciate texts into two rivetingly funny and tragic pieces of theatrical magic. Two hours 15 minutes (minus the interval) of hanging on the edge of your seat for the next deliciously delivered line or piece of memorable comic business. We absolutely loved it.
Production photos by Manuel Harlan