Sign up to The American magazine's newsletters (below) to receive more regular news, articles and updates on America in the UK.
The mistake often taken with Beckett is to get lost in the seriousness, mining the themes of nihilism and existential angst while forgetting that what Beckett often actually puts on stage is pure vaudeville. He was a lover of slapstick and his best interpreters have always been ex-comedians.
He understood that the bulk of our communication is non-verbal and displayed this on stage in precise detail. Take for example the first pages of Endgame which culminates in the great opening line: “Finished”. It’s all precise stage directions, like choreography. The lame servant Clov (Daniel Radcliffe) scrambles back and forth dragging a step ladder, slapping himself for forgetting it, and hauling himself up it to draw the curtains on the, curiously highly placed, windows. Comic geniuses such as Lee Evans have revelled in the physicality of Clov, who can’t sit, and here Daniel Radcliffe also embraces it totally. Yet again Radcliffe doesn’t settle for the easy option as he builds an impressive list of stage credits.
His co-star Alan Cumming is equally perfectly cast. He could have been born to play Hamm and gives him the tyrannical air of a fruity, dyspeptic, old actor. But it’s also a masterclass in Beckett acting as he has the chops to mine the pain beneath the bluster. Hamm is blind and confined to a throne-like chair, placed dead center. It’s also on castors which enables Clov to wheel him about the room to take in the view, which Clov then must describe.
Both are locked in a double act of mutual dependence laced with casual cruelty as only Beckett could fashion. They’re interrupted only by the poignant nostalgic ramblings by Hamm’s ancient parents who, in Stewart Laing’s pitch perfect design, reside in wheelie-bins. Karl Johnson as Nag beautifully calibrates an elderly father’s fine line between parental disdain and senile helplessness, and Jane Horrocks’ Nell is frailer than is usually presented, which makes this cameo role even more poignant.
Written in 1957 it is infused with a frosty Cold War weariness, but it hasn’t dated, and the apocalyptic themes could be environmental. It’s the razor-sharp observation of human folly leavened by a mordant wit which makes it eternal, and director Richard Jones, blessed as he is here with consummate actors, has done wonders in unleashing the humor.
The play is prefaced by a companion piece, a rare staging of the short Rough for Theatre II. Cummings and Radcliffe play two bureaucrats, ‘A’ and ‘B’, watching over a third character standing with his back to us at a large window, apparently about to jump off. The two, seated at office desks in a menacing half-light, take out their files and routinely go through what appears to be an audit of the man’s life before they decide whether he’s worth saving or not. It’s like a gloriously twisted take on It’s a Wonderful Life. Cummings excels in the cascades of language and Radcliffe's puckishness is perfect for his chirpier companion. The banter and the blokeish bonhomie are strikingly reminiscent of Pinter, whose early works were contemporaneous to these and who of course acknowledged a debt to Beckett.