Endgame @ Duchess Theatre, London

cast list
Mark Rylance, Simon McBurney, Miriam Margolyes, Tom Hickey

directed by
Simon McBurney
Complicite performing Beckett is a fascinating concept. How would a company best known for its devised collaborations of physical theatre tackle the abstract minimalist poetry of a playwright whose exact text (stage directions as well as dialogue) is rigorously safeguarded by his estate?

While their approach is more restricted than their previous stagings of classic plays by the likes of Shakespeare and Brecht, Complicite still manage to stamp their own distinctive imprint on Endgame with Simon McBurneys production emphasizing the strong visual images and surreal knockabout comedy of Becketts theatre.
It also brings out the self-referential theatricality of the play, with characters occasionally directly addressing the audience who are complicit in the performance.

Tim Hatleys dimly lit, dingy set suggests a semi-underground bunker in a possibly post-apocalyptic world in which the surviving human beings yearn for death as escape. While they wait impatiently for closure to their dead-end lives, imprisoned by both physical disability and mental ennui, their repetitive mundane daily rituals and petty bickering passes the time while mysteriously Something is taking its course.

The predicament of the protagonists is not so much bleak as dire. The symbiotic master/servant relationship between the imperiously blind, armchair-bound Hamm and the passively-aggressive limping Clov is more about stagnant habit than mutual support. And, while there is a poignancy in the affectionate reminiscing of Hamms dustbin-bound parents Nagg and Nell, they are unable to physically touch each other.

But in Becketts absurdist world, as Nell says, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness” and there is plenty of gallows humour on show here, not to mention vaudevillian moments such as Clov clumsily climbing a stepladder in the vain hope of seeing something through the murky windows with his telescope or his over-the-top efforts to exterminate a flea in his trousers.

In addition to McBurney as director, Marcello Magni, Ian Rickson and Douglas Rintoul are credited as associate directors, presumably because of complications which led to the opening of this production being slightly delayed. The original stars were due to be Richard Briers and Adrian Scarborough but when they became unavailable Mark Rylance and McBurney himself stepped into the breach. It would have been interesting to see in particular Briers take on Beckett (having impressed so much in Complicites version of Ionescos The Chairs) but the replacements were more than up to the job.

Rylance (in between stints in Jerusalem, which will transfer from the Royal Court to the West End in the New Year), gives a characteristically dynamic performance, his eyes hidden behind dark glasses but using his body well to suggest Hamms frustration and anger despite being seated the entire time. Taking his cue from his name, he also presents him as a bit of a ham actor, self-consciously manipulating those around him and commanding a captive audience for his storytelling.

McBurney also impresses physically as Clov, stomping around irascibly as he carries out orders, threatening to leave but not knowing what to do outside this role. And as Nagg and Nell, Tom Hickey and Miriam Margolyes are wonderfully grotesque, conveying just the right balance of pathos and comedy to provide a little warmth against the chill wind blowing through Becketts shelterless universe.

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