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Endgame, Duchess Theatre, London<br/>Life is a Dream, Donmar Warehouse, London<br/>Terror 2009, Southwark Playhouse, London

Superlative substitutes Rylance and McBurney get &lsquo;Endgame&rsquo; 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