Theatre Endgame Donmar Warehouse

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The Independent Culture
Ever since the Beckett estate fell with punitive pedantry on Deborah Warner's staging of Footfalls, I've found myself fantasising about ways you could produce his plays that would liberate them from the strait-jacket of his stage directions while not being untrue to the spirit or the significance of the works. How about Happy Days where the mound of earth in which Winnie is embedded had a different spatial relationship with the audience (brought right into its midst, say) in Act 2, by which time the mound has risen from waist to neck level? Or how about a version of Endgame that took place not in that dingy skull of a room, but on a plush, bourgeois stage set, thereby suggesting that the characters' bleakly terminal vision of external reality is a neurotically subjective one?

Too crude, perhaps. For, as Katie Mitchell's lovely, moving and strangely heartening Donmar Warehouse staging of Endgame establishes, you can sound different notes in this drama without altering the structure of the keyboard. Performed on a cellar-like set that is a veritable tone poem in greyness and grime, this is a production that finds a profound, pained humanity in a play Beckett called "more inhuman than Godot" and which he himself directed with the imagery of chess to the fore.

Mitchell does not undersell the music-hall-meets-the-Absurd comedy of the play nor its self-reflexive knowingness that it is a time-killing theatre event with a real-life audience. I've never seen the old running gag of Clov's having repeatedly to limp back for his forgotten ladder performed with such hilarity as it is by Stephen Dillane who is an amazing hump-backed, effortfully shuffling Caliban to Alun Armstrong's paralysed, balefully Northern Prospero of a Hamm.

What the production ensures you notice, though, are the feelings each of these men keeps banked down in their deathly mutual dependency. There's an undertow of guilty self-disgust in Armstrong's wilful, snarling heartlessness and it's the terror of isolation, not the abject inconsistency, that hits you, when he asks Clov for a few words from the heart before he leaves. As Dillane demonstrated when he played Hamlet, he is a master at signalling a passionately sensitive, suffering soul through a barbedly ironic mildness of manner and a sort of stricken whimsy. He delivers Clov's lines in a light, soft, sometimes almost throwaway tone; it's as though he's so annoyed with Hamm he can hardly bear to address him and so depressed that words have come to seem a waste of breath. Yet you feel there's an enormous blighted potential for love and intimacy in this figure, though the blocking is such that the left hand side of the audience gets an enviably clearer view of him.

Harry Jones and Eileen Nicholas are the most affecting Nagg and Nell I have yet seen, playing this dustbinned duo as a pair of shrivelled senile Scots, who need one another to act as audience for rusty jokes and unreliable memories. "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness," opines Nell, but the laughter this raises, you feel here, need not be superior or heartless.

To 25 May (0171-369 1732)

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