Beckett rescued from his admirers

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Following her superb production of Euripides' The Phoenician Women for the RSC, which transfers to the Barbican in June, Katie Mitchell leaps a couple of millennia to give us a highly impressive Endgame. It confirms her as one of our most imaginative directors. Imaginative, that is, not in terms of flash ideas and high-tech designs, but of attentive- ness to character. In it, four fairly bizarre people, one who can't stand, one who can't sit, and two who live in dustbins, emerge as deeply plausible and affecting. Her Endgame has a remarkable authority.

It requires someone with Mitchell's scrupulous tenacity to rescue Beckett from his admirers. The text is replete with stage directions: three steps forwards, two steps back, pause, sniff, yawn, and so on. If that isn't inhibiting enough, the Beckett industry threatens to submerge this wonderfully light- footed playwright in a welter of reverential footnotes. There is, thankfully, nothing timid or pedantic about this Endgame.

Rae Smith's set uses the black brick wall at the back of the Donmar to create a vault of Dickensian gloom. The only light penetrating the smoky stage is a ghostly white creeping in under the curtain of a dirty window (the lighting is by Chris Davey). We never know the wider context in which the chair-bound Hamm, his reclusive parents, Nagg and Nell, and his limping servant, Clov, live. Where is this? When is this? Who are they?

It doesn't matter. Mitchell's production captivates us with the urgent precision of their relationships: master-servant, parent-child, husband- wife. The parents aren't metaphysical "types" inhabiting no man's land. Nagg (Harry Jones) has a gargoyle face, a grinningly emphatic delivery and a longing for sugar-plums; Nell (Eileen Nicholas) has skin like faded parchment, and a wistful attachment to "yesterday". Like Hamm and Clov, they exist in a formidably particular world. When actors deliver Beckett's lines too respectfully, the dialogue becomes free-floating and sententious. Here, thoughts can be as strong and unwelcome an irritant as the flea Clov discovers in his trousers. It's mental anguish that powers Endgame.

As Hamm, the excellent Alun Armstrong sits deep in his armchair - unshaven, dark glasses - tooting his whistle and barking out fussy orders in a Yorkshire accent. He's not a theatrical Hamm; he's a boss and a raconteur. He has the solid, bullying manner of a retired mill-owner. As the fretful servant Clov, Stephen Dillane scuttles back and forth with his ladder, feverishly coping with Hamm's requests. Dillane is superb. Hunchbacked, nervous, his straggly hair falling across his thin bearded face, he raises his eyes to the roof, scratches his dirty trousers and mutters soft rapid rebuttals. His timing is a delight. We glimpse years and years of frustrated servitude.

New moods, comic routines, changes in pace: the atmosphere in Endgame constantly shifts and reshapes, making it taut, tough and funny. It is bleak in a very humane and engaging way. Mitchell's rare gift is to make plays extraordinarily fresh without obscuring or distorting them. You leave Endgame convinced of its greatness.

Verdi took Victor Hugo's Le Roi s'amuse, the story of a court jester who loses the only thing he cares about, his daughter, and used it as the basis for Rigoletto. In The Prince's Play, Tony Harrison takes Le Roi s'amuse and neatly transposes the action from 1830s Paris to Victorian England. The hunchback jester - yes, there were two hunchbacks this week - becomes a music-hall clown, Scotty Scott. The cynical philandering prince (David Westhead, in silkily imperious form) becomes the Prince of Wales.

It's a chilling, heartbreaking story, and in Richard Eyre's handsome production the chill wins out over the heartbreak. Here is tragedy that doesn't move us as it might. Why? Several stars compete for our attention, most notably Bob Crowley, with spectacularly fluent designs which include a riverside hovel with rain drizzling down while mist rises off the Thames. I'm not sure this operatic extravagance serves the demands of Harrison's extremely witty, dexterous verse, which skewers the licentious, heartless upper class, its phoney values, and the gap between public and private personas.

As Scotty, the embittered Glaswegian comic, Ken Stott goes from the hilarity of music-hall routines to dark, vituperative soliloquies. He is "the comedian as canker, the poisonous Pierrot / making gall and vinegar out of Veuve Clicquot!"

If anything, Scotty Scott over-articulates his feelings. It's a huge role, played with fiery relish by Stott. But as the plot descends into improbable melodrama - his daughter, Becky (Arlene Cockburn), is a bewilderingly self-sacrificing character - we find ourselves admiring the verse, designs and central performance with surprising detachment.

A new version of Strindberg's Miss Julie, translated by Gregory Motton, reverses the author's intentions. Strindberg subtitles his play "A Naturalistic Tragedy" and explains in the preface that "subtler reactions should be mirrored in the face rather than in gesture and sound".

Nick Philipou's production opens with gesture and sound, as gaudily lit tableaux highlight the dark sexual themes. Ghoulish knives and meat- cleavers hang along the front of the stage. The acting is equally over- stated. Jean (Peter Linford) has a Pythonesque voice, twitchy face, shuddering shoulders and gestures to rival Sir Henry Irving. With lipstick smeared across her face, gorging herself on nuts, Kate Fenwick has the febrile waywardness of Miss Julie, but little of the class. This clunky expressionist approach diminishes its subject. In the advance publicity, the Actors Touring Company speak grandly of revealing the play's core. Why? The beauty of naturalism is that it lies on the surface.

Theatre details: Going Out, page 14.

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