Arts: Theatre: There's nothing funnier than unhappiness

ENDGAME BARBICAN LONDON
THE ODDS might seem to be fairly formidably stacked against the possibility of mirth in a play with a post-apocalyptic setting where the survivors are a blind wheelchair-bound tyrant, a lame servant and two aged parents, stashed in dustbins, who are literally, as opposed to alcoholically, legless. Certainly, there's no danger of mistaking Samuel Beckett's Endgame for Hello Dolly!

But as one of its characters observes "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness," or at least there's a perspective from which that does not seem to be a flat self-contradiction. The comprehensive bleakness of the scenario allows Beckett to put that view of comedy to a rigorous test.

The play's gallows humour is uplifting and oddly buoyant precisely because it refuses to flinch from what is most depressing in the human lot. Its jokes outwit and outstare the worst, as when Clov asks: "Do you believe in the life to come?" and Hamm triumphantly finesses the question by answering: "Mine was always that..."

Antoni Libera's compelling and meticulous production, now at the Barbican as part of the Beckett Festival, vividly emphasises the analogy between the domestic routines and stories that help these characters impose some shape on their depleted existence and the theatrical routines necessary to keep a show from dying the death. "What is there to keep me here?" inquires Clov. "The dialogue," replies Hamm, stressing that they are all trapped in a script as well as an ebbing life. Accordingly, Robert Ballagh's set, with its charred grey walls and two high windows, has a calculably artificial look, like a watercolour that has only reluctantly consented to take on a third dimension.

Alan Stanford and Barry McGovern make a splendid double act as the mutually and fractiously dependent master and servant. Dressed in a dandified pink dressing gown, Stanford's Hamm, with his grandiloquent voice and spoilt sulks, is certainly the egotistical ham actor that his name denotes, and there's grotesque comedy in the affection he lavishes on a three-legged toy dog that symbolises his frustrated need for submissive adoration. But Stanford can also veer stunningly into tones of authentic desolation, sometimes with just the slightest shift of vocal quality. Asked to check what the old father is up to in his bin, Clov reports: "He's crying."

"Then he's living," declares Hamm. And Stanford gives those three words a rueful, shrugging amplitude that recalls Lear's more expansive perception that when we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools.

Wiry and intense, with a latent aggression in his bearing as he totters about his errands, McGovern's Clov counters his master's fruity Englishness with some wonderful, gruffly sardonic Irish inflections, bringing out the deadpan subversiveness of lines like: "I couldn't guffaw again today." The ambiguity as to whether this discontented Caliban can ever kick his dependency on Hamm's crippled Prospero is heightened by the fact that he maintains his final position - at the door, dressed for departure, but still looking steadily at Hamm - throughout the curtain calls. Unforgettable.

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