Endgame, Duchess Theatre, London
Life is a Dream, Donmar Warehouse, London
Terror 2009, Southwark Playhouse, London

Superlative substitutes Rylance and McBurney get ‘Endgame’ off to a very good start

Stuck in ruts, yearning to escape but caught in a loop, incapable of change. That describes most of the characters in Samuel Beckett’s plays. It seemingly didn’t apply, however, to the cast in this major West End production of Endgame, Beckett’s existential dark farce played out in a post-apocalyptic hovel.

One minute, Richard Briers and Adrian Scarborough were all set to portray the decrepit, chair-bound yarnspinner Hamm and his hobbling, tormented servant Clov. Next thing you know, both actors have hightailed it. By all accounts, that was due to Scarborough’s next job (at the NT), rather than ructions with director Simon McBurney of Complicite.

Anyway, who’s complaining when the substitutes are bigger news: indeed, potentially superlative. Mark Rylance is now ensconced as Hamm, hot from his storming Royal Court performance in Jerusalem. And Clov

is McBurney himself: a Lecoq-trained performer-director who might well rival the superb tragicomic clowning of Lee Evans in Matthew Warchus’s great Endgame of 2004.

As the lights come up, dimly, on a charred brick barn – and again at the close – McBurney’s Clov stands frozen, just staring intently at Hamm. In fact, McBurney plays down the physical clowning. His Clov looks, rather realistically, like a sagging farmhand in a dirty vest: shoulders slumped, arms hanging heavy. His stiff-legged stagger – up a ladder to a small window whenever he’s ordered to survey the wasteland beyond – is subtly slapstick, but looks genuinely painful too. His ossified foot smacks against each rung on the slide down, like the clacker in a football rattle. He does go to town, hilariously, when firing clouds of flea-powder down his pants. Meanwhile Rylance’s Hamm is satirically histrionic from the waist up, in a dilapidated aesthete’s dressing gown and James Joycean dark specs. While his legs dangle like a rag doll’s, he accompanies his obsessive storytelling and moans about feeling drained with an effete writhing of the neck and twirling hands.

What’s mildly disappointing is the delivery of lines – at this early stage in the run, at least. The pace feels fractionally rushed. Maybe the urge is to push towards naturalism, away from overstating the latent poetic rhythms. Yet a few laughs are lost, in the rush, and some philosophical gravitas.

Still, if this isn’t yet a great Endgame, it’s already a very good one. As Hamm’s derelict parents in dustbins, Miriam Margolyes’s melancholic Nell and Tom Hickey’s gaunt Nagg are touching. Gradually, you sense the play’s structure, almost like musical movements; the starkness of the dialogue starts to bite, and Beckett’s vision of a ruined world gains a chilling ecological dimension.

If existence is a living death in Endgame, Life is a Dream according to Pedro Calderon de la Barca. In this 17th-century Spanish drama – given a darkly glistering Donmar revival – Dominic West’s Prince Segismundo, pictured right, has been cast from the palace at birth and shackled in a remote tower because of parental forebodings. He is Calderon’s answer to Oedipus.

However, in this variation, Segismundo is released by his regal father (Malcolm Storry). The prince immediately outrages the court with his uncouth delinquency. Shorn-headed, West squats like a gorilla on the throne, his prune-dark eyes darting. He grabs any beautiful lady who wows him and furiously tosses any protesting gents out of the nearest window.

This play is oddly uneven, sporadically brilliant, like a bumpy pearl (the original meaning of “baroque”), switching between high-flying poetry and rumbustious comedy. Calderon’s prince can philosophise like Hamlet then behave like Caliban or Ubu Roi. All the parallels with other European classics – including Pirandello – make this production rich with literary echoes, though Helen Edmundson’s English translation takes a while to find its feet. The initial lofty poetry falls flat, and Jonathan Munby’s directing has a few blips too. There’s some hoary acting in the first act, and the prince infeasibly scales a wall while sleepwalking.

Nevertheless, West is on explosive fine form. Kate Fleetwood copes valiantly as the cross-dressing avenger, Rosaura. The period costumes are handsome against designer Angela Davies’ molten gold backdrop. And Munby pointedly leaves niggling doubts hanging about the “happy ending” of hasty marriages.

Lastly, Terror 2009 at Southwark Playhouse is a collection of four short plays toying with Grand Guignol tropes and contemporary horrors. The line-up of writers is outstanding for the London fringe: Neil LaBute, Anthony Neilson, Mark Ravenhill and Lucy Kirkwood. Neilson’s Twisted lives up to its name, directed by Hannah Eidinow, with a malign psychiatrist (Trudi Jackson) and seemingly reformed killer (Adrian Schiller) playing games. The Experiment, a monologue performed by Ravenhill with a glinting smile and a pinstripe suit, is an edgy, almost Swiftian satire: a possibly delusional natter about medical trials on neighbours’ babies.

However, Kirkwood’s ghoulish Psychogeography proves uncomfortably caricatured. And terminally, LaBute’s Some White Chick is sickeningly nasty, brutish and short.

We are asked to sit and watch as a pair of middle-class American youths, between casually munching on junk food, beat up and stab a whimpering adolescent girl to death. They finish off with necrophilia and a video camera, making a snuff movie. LaBute may want this to be hailed as the most shocking piece of theatre ever staged, but it just felt to me, horribly, as if the dramatist was getting a kick out of it, without producing any substantial analysis or argument.

The most illuminating moral comment, on the night I attended, was half the audience refusing to clap.

‘Endgame’ (0844 412 4659) to 5 Dec; ‘Life is a Dream’(0870 060 6624) to 28 Nov; ‘Terror 2009’ (020 7407 0234) to 24 Oct

Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
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.

    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
    The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

    The haunting of Shirley Jackson

    Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
    Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

    Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

    These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
    Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen