Forget the indistinguishable Ant and Dec, the boy next door and the boy next door to him. Essential to most successful double acts is a combustible contrast of physique and personality, set off against a strong, almost conjugal interdependence. This is true all the way from Laurel and Hardy to The Right Size, the duo who took the West End and Broadway by storm with The Play What I Wrote, their meta-tribute show to another pair of not-so-easily confused clowns, Morecambe and Wise.
No one pushed this convention of difference and mutual reliance to a more grotesque comic extreme than Samuel Beckett in his 1957 play Endgame. Here, it's no mere case of fat-and-pompous vs thin-and-gormless. The strangely symbiotic twosome at the centre consists of Hamm, a blind tyrant who cannot stand up, and Clov, his complementary - though far from complimentary - crippled servant who cannot sit down. In this piece, the binary principle seems to have gone quietly berserk. Like eyes set into the grey skull of a room, two small, high windows look out on to a terminally depleted world. Out of a couple of dustbins, where they have been "bottled", Hamm's decrepit parents pop up from time to time, their crosstalk at one point reminiscent of some senile re-run of an Abbott and Costello riff.
Beckett had already given the double act a new lease of morbid life in Waiting for Godot, where the plight of the two tramps waiting for their infinitely postponed rendezvous is synonymous with the predicament of two desperate clowns struggling, via their verbal and physical routines, to keep a show on the road for a couple of hours. Vaudeville meets existentialism.
Beckett once said Hamm and Clov were Vladimir and Estragon at the end of their lives. He then modified that by saying that they were like him and his wife. Their interplay is, to be sure, evocative of a festering marriage where neither partner can summon up the will to leave. Yet the effect is sustaining rather than depressing, because of the glinting mischief of its gallows humour and the remorselessness of its pessimism. This is the end of lives that have scarcely been lived. "Do you believe in the life to come?" asks Clov. "Mine was always that," is Hamm's dourly droll reply, confirming his mother Nell's contention that "nothing is funnier than unhappiness".
In the new revival of Endgame, directed by Matthew Warchus at the Albery in London, the casting gives a further piquant twist to the contentious nature of this testy twosome, for the characters are played here by performers who hail from markedly different traditions. Hamm (who, as his name implies, has more than a smack of the old luvvie about him: "I'm warming up for my last soliloquy," he portentously announces towards the end) is portrayed by that titan of the legitimate stage, Sir Michael Gambon ("the great Gambon" as he was dubbed by Sir Ralph Richardson). Unforgettable in roles as diverse as Brecht's Galileo, Shakespeare's Antony and the shy, endlessly benign nerd who's thrust into the limelight in Alan Ayckbourn's Man of the Moment, Gambon is an actor who, as Richard Eyre wrote in his recently published diaries, "occupies the centre stage of the Olivier as if he was standing in front of the fireplace in his own house".
The role of Clov is taken by Lee Evans, the rubber-limbed Perrier award-winning comic who seems, by contrast, to have donned the mantle of Sir Norman Wisdom in a career that has embraced movies (from Mouse Hunt to The Martins) and frantically energetic sell-out gigs at the likes of Wembley that have left him with sweat-soaked suits and a lifetime ban from the dry cleaners. As Warchus admits, it is "a big risk" bringing two such diverse talents into creative collision.
I met up with the pair of them after rehearsals one day, and have to report that if their chemistry is as good onstage as off, we are in for a treat. This was obvious from the moment I asked how aware they each were of the other's work.
"Well, I'm always at his shows," Gambon says.
"Yeah, 'ecklin'," chips back Evans.
"Get off the stage, you bastard!" roars Gambon.
"And I do," says Evans.
"Yeah, and if he wasn't in this," Gambon adds, "he'd be in the front row shouting at me. Wouldn't you?"
"Yeah," says Evans.
"Get off the stage, you prat!" bellows Gambon. Not the most detailed answer, perhaps, but a fair warning that I would be cast as the straight man to their double act.
They make a striking contrast, physically and vocally - Gambon like a moulting, slightly decadent lion with a voice that sounds marinaded in worldly experience, and Evans a perky, innocent, besuited presence with those endearing monkey-features, piping Essex tones and manic machine-gun laugh. I was a bit afraid of meeting Gambon, who has a reputation for disliking interviews and questions about the acting process. I'd been told that he hates intellectuals ("wankers"), comes down heavily on any hint of bullshit, and that his main interests are flying planes, restoring antique guns and sex. I began to feel that it would make about as much sense to send Jeremy Clarkson to interview Alan Bennett about the car as penis substitute as to dispatch me on this particular mission.
But I should have attended to another entry in Eyre's diaries. Nick Roeg, planning a film about Samson and Delilah, apparently laughed that Gambon was "perfectly cast" as King of the Philistines, to which Eyre adds: "Mike's cover is very good; he's actually very sensitive, highly musical, plays the classical guitar and loves ballet." It's clear that Gambon is very fond of Evans and that he takes an unobtrusively protective interest in the younger man as he prepares to make his straight acting debut in such a daunting piece. Offstage, with Evans in tow as benign sidekick, the great actor seems to have lowered his guard.
Having cast Gambon as Hamm, Warchus says that for Clov he wanted "the modern equivalent of those silent-movie stars whom Beckett admired, like Chaplin and Buster Keaton, and Lee Evans is at the top of that list". As Clov effortfully hobbles around the stage at the tyrant's bidding and performs such "running" gags as having to limp back repeatedly for his forgotten ladder, he is the only mobile character in the play. It's a role that can only benefit from expertise in physical comedy.
Evans thinks that his personality suits the part, too. "I think it is quite appropriate for myself, being quite a subservient character towards, if you like, the Establishment. I've always bounced well off someone who is a more dominant figure." We've seen this in Mouse Hunt, where he was a sort of Laurel to Nathan Lane's Hardy, and we will see it again in the autumn when he forms a double act with Richard Dreyfus in the West End transfer of the hit Broadway musical of The Producers. "Meeting Mel Brooks was like talking to a drum kit. He talks in rhythm - it's like 'Ba-ba-da, ba-ba-daaa, whoossssh'." Evans himself used to play the drums, a training that now comes in handy because "Endgame is like a musical as well, with all those pauses and different rhythms".
According to temperament, the problem of playing Clov is either compounded or eased by the fact that his master (who may be his father, too) is blind. "His [Evans'] character," Gambon says, "is based on the fact that he can't be seen. It gives him the freedom to do what he does. In rehearsals, I never look at him." Evans quickly puts in: "This is the first time you've ever seen me, isn't it, Michael?"
How does it feel, though, to be on stage unable to make direct eye-contact with your co-star? "Well, look at me," Evans says: "It's nice not to have somebody looking at you. You know those wobbly mirrors at the fair? When I look in them, I look normal." Gambon says: "Yeah, they help you, don't they?" He then goes on to draw a surprising analogy with movie-making. Once when he was being filmed in a reverse shot, the actress behind the camera turned her back to him. "I thought that was brilliant, because then I could imagine what she was looking at and I felt free in front of the camera." The eyes, it seems, don't always have it.
If you want to witness the first stirrings of the existential double-act in Beckett, you need to go further back than Godot. That play is anticipated in the antics and inconsequential crosstalk of the eponymous couple in Mercier and Camier, a comic novel which he completed in French in 1946 but suppressed until 1970. The predicament of the earlier pair is an inversion of that suffered by Vladimir and Estragon: instead of futile waiting, there's a futile quest that only twice manages * * to take the infirm, physically contrasted heroes out of town.
There are distinct foreshadowings there of exchanges found in Endgame. Consider how the mix of cock-eyed Irishness and potential profundity in this - "Do you feel like singing?" said Camier. "Not to my knowledge," said Mercier" - takes on an altogether deeper note when the gag is recycled, with adjustments, in the play: "Hamm: Did you ever have an instant of happiness? Clov: Not to my knowledge." Melancholy, metaphysics, thoughts of suicide (at an inn, Mercier orders a room on an upper floor, "where I can throw myself out of the window, without misgiving, should occasion arise") and farcical knock-about sit cheek by jowl.
The novel also contains what could, with appropriately substituted names, stand as the epigraph to all these double-act works: "Strength was required to remain with Camier, just as strength was required to remain with Mercier, but less than was required for the battle of soliloquy." Two's company, however taxing on the nerves: one's a nightmare. Cut to Endgame: "What is there to keep me here?" asks Clov. "The dialogue," is Hamm's reply.
Drama allowed Beckett to add the anxiety of theatrical self-consciousness to the existential quandary of his characters. In these two early plays, he takes the conventional "all the world's a stage" idea to an audaciously literal extreme. It's as if there's nothing but the stage and the wings and the auditorium in the world he presents. "End of the corridor on the left," is Estragon's peculiar-sounding direction when Vladimir leaves "the country road" for a pee. At one point in Endgame, Clov picks up a telescope, trains it on the stalls, and says ironically: "I see... a multitude... in transports... of joy. (Pause) That's what I call a magnifier," provoking a laugh that may vary according to size of house.
It is fatal, though, if the actors start playing to the audience. Certainly, any sense of the mystery or isolation (which can paradoxically be intensified by the theatrical context) was lost when Robin Williams began doing impressions during his notoriously self-indulgent Godot with Steve Martin, or when Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson turned the same drama into an exhibition of raucous rapport with their fan club.
Matthew Warchus says that Lee Evans, who is also used to making head-on riotous whoopee with his public, has been working wonderfully hard "to stay inside the bubble". In rehearsals, they have been plotting the precise degree to which a line like: "If I could kill him, I'd die happy" can be pitched to the audience, without losing the essential solitariness of the character's state. Gambon, too, has been known to enjoy a spot of horseplay on stage, particularly during long runs, as when he starred in Warchus's National Theatre production of Volpone with Simon Russell Beale. "Simon and I fooled around a bit," he recalls. "At one point, I had sex with him. He used to fight me, you know, but I'd get him on the bed and I'd... [here he mimes a few pelvic thrusts]. We shoved it in after the first few performances and every night we'd change little bits. Of course, you can't do anything like that with Endgame, because it's such a formal play."
Alan Ayckbourn is not the first dramatist you'd expect to hear mentioned in the same breath as Beckett, but it makes perfect sense when, talking of actorly discipline, Gambon remarks that "you could say the same of Ayckbourn - unless you fit into the strict mathematical engineering pattern of his plays, it won't work. If you start going off on a tangent or introducing a bit of subtext, you've had it."
Clov's relationship with Hamm has haunting overtones of the Fool and King Lear, of Caliban and Prospero. These may well be heightened here in a production that takes the view that the characters are negotiating the very last day of their lives. All this will take a heavy physical toll of the cast. Beckett is not noted for making life cushy for actors, with plays that bury people up to the neck in earth (like Winnie in Happy Days) or force their heads into tight clamps so that they can become the jabbering disembodied mouth in Not I, or deposit them in urns (like the adulterous trio in Play). It comes as no surprise, therefore, to learn that Evans is developing back problems from all that hobbling.
I ask about the other twosome, the decrepit oldsters, played by Liz Smith and Geoffrey Hutchings. How are they coping hunched inside their dustbins? Gambon and Evans launch into another of their routines.
"They've installed hydraulic lifts underneath," says Gambon. "Liz and Geoff can go down, luxuriate in a nice bath, have a bottle of champagne, and 'bzzzzz' come back again when they're needed."
"They can even go down to Sheekey's [a nearby restaurant]," adds Evans. "When I lean in their bins, I can put in my order."
"They're the best parts," laughs Gambon. "'I'll have the whitebait, please!'"
I could have sworn they were taking the piss: but no, there really are new, specially provided lifts, conjuring up Noises Off-style visions of whizzing between bin, bath and bar and demented breakdowns.
"We wrote to the Beckett estate to ask if we could change a line," Gambon reveals. "We wanted to alter, 'We're getting on' to 'We're getting there'. 'Getting on' sounds as if the characters are 'getting along'." The estate, sleeplessly vigilant about every comma in Beckett's holy writ, has refused permission. Gambon and Evans, though, seem to be "getting on" in both senses of the term. Theirs is a rapport with a keen sense of direction. Hydraulic lifts permitting, they are all set to demonstrate that Beckett constructed double acts of singular strength.
'Endgame', at the Albery Theatre, London WC2, is booking to 24 April (020-7369 1740)Reuse content