First Night: Endgame, Duchess Theatre, London

4.00

Apocalypse wow! Rylance triumphs again

This is a brilliant Complicite production of
Endgame, but it's not at all as originally planned.

It was to have starred Richard Briers and Adrian Scarborough who had made a pact to appear in this Beckett piece while appearing in the National Theatre's production of Wind in the Willows. It would certainly have been intriguing to see a former Ratty and Moley play Hamm and Clov, the undynamic duo of existential angst. Not unlike watching the Kray twins essay the roles of Winnie the Pooh and Eeyore. Sadly, they were forced to withdraw from the project.

But after a spectacular salvaging operation, their replacements have created an even stronger frisson of anticipation. Simon McBurney, who has also directed the production, is the greatest theatre-maker of his generation; Mark Rylance is the greatest actor. Now, playing respectively Clov and Hamm, they are together on stage at last in a remarkable interpretation of this warped vaudeville double act of deathly mutual dependency that is doomed to drag itself out in a post-apocalyptic, terminally depleted world where everything (including painkillers) is running out.

True to his name, the blind, chair -bound tyrant Hamm becomes, in Rylance's fantastically funny and painful portrayal, a lofty, affected luvvie who writhes in elaborate, arm-flinging agony from his stationary position. The actor pulls off a miracle here. The performance feels extraordinarily free and full of spur-of-the-moment inspiration, yet it's also absolutely disciplined and true to Beckett's sense that life is a matter of trying to kill time with routines that bore you out of your mind with their repetitiveness.

Rylance's Hamm has a vast repertoire of actorly effects and wiles – from the mock-modesty of the chatshow anecdotalist to the self-regarding thunder of the barnstorming tragedian. But this very range renders it all the more claustrophobic to him (and to us) that he could never surprise himself. Hence his tantrum-throwing fury. "There's something dripping in my head. A heart, a heart in my head" he cries, gripping his skull, in seemingly spontaneous terror but you know that he'll soon be adjusting his cap ready for another bour of low-key thespian peevishness.

And the character's terminal frustration and tragic core are registered in a marvellously innovative moment at the end when he twists the bloodied handkerchief that acts as his dustcover into a tight strip and suddenly makes as if to gag and garrotte himself with it before allowing it flop once again over his face. How many times can this acting genius, fresh from his triumph in the Royal Court hit Jerusalem, succeed in surpassing himself?

With his stiff-legged scuttle and his sulk of subdued resentment, McBurney's crippled servant Clov is more a foil to Rylance than the full counterweight you ideally need. But give the guy a break. He's had to direct this production in very difficult circumstances and he's done it superbly.

Tim Hatley's high, brick set looks like the charred interior of a cranium. Miriam Margolyes plays the dustbinned mother, Nell, as a very funny slow-witted Irish loon and she and Tom Hickey as her husband time their addled exchanges to farcical perfection.

The window curtains open with an almost satirical suddenness on the wasteland outside, as if to add insult to injury. Beckett is fond of self-reflexive theatrical jokes. At one point, Clov points a telescope into the auditorium. "I see... a multitude... in transports... of joy" he declares ironically, peering into vacancy. In the Duchess Theatre, at the other end of this instrument, there are a couple of hundred people in the throes of the deepest appreciation.

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