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.

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Off the wall: the cast of ‘Life in Squares’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Books And it is whizzpopping!

Arts and Entertainment
Bono throws water at the crowd while the Edge watches as they perform in the band's first concert of their new world tour in Vancouver

MusicThey're running their own restaurants

Voices
The main entrance to the BBC headquarters in London
TV & Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Solved after 200 years: the mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army

    Solved after 200 years

    The mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army
    Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

    Robert Fisk on the Turkey conflict

    Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise
    Investigation into wreck of unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden

    Sunken sub

    Investigation underway into wreck of an unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden
    Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes

    Age of the selfie

    Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes
    Not so square: How BBC's Bloomsbury saga is sexing up the period drama

    Not so square

    How Virginia Woolf saga is sexing up the BBC period drama
    Rio Olympics 2016: The seven teenagers still carrying a torch for our Games hopes

    Still carrying the torch

    The seven teenagers given our Olympic hopes
    The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise

    The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis...

    ...but history suggests otherwise
    The bald truth: How one author's thinning hair made him a Wayne Rooney sympathiser

    The bald truth

    How thinning hair made me a Wayne Rooney sympathiser
    Froome wins second Tour de France after triumphant ride into Paris with Team Sky

    Tour de France 2015

    Froome rides into Paris to win historic second Tour
    Fifteen years ago, Concorde crashed, and a dream died. Today, the desire to travel faster than the speed of sound is growing once again

    A new beginning for supersonic flight?

    Concorde's successors are in the works 15 years on from the Paris crash
    I would never quit Labour, says Liz Kendall

    I would never quit party, says Liz Kendall

    Latest on the Labour leadership contest
    Froome seals second Tour de France victory

    Never mind Pinot, it’s bubbly for Froome

    Second Tour de France victory all but sealed
    Oh really? How the 'lowest form of wit' makes people brighter and more creative

    The uses of sarcasm

    'Lowest form of wit' actually makes people brighter and more creative
    A magazine editor with no vanity, and lots of flair

    No vanity, but lots of flair

    A tribute to the magazine editor Ingrid Sischy
    Foraging: How the British rediscovered their taste for chasing after wild food

    In praise of foraging

    How the British rediscovered their taste for wild food