Review: Endgame, The Old Vic

“And to think that is organic waste! All that splendour!”

Director Richard Jones tones down the nihilism of Beckett’s Endgame and refreshingly cakes the void with lashings of hilarity. He amplifies the squeaks of tenderness that can be elicited from the far-flung corners of Beckettian misery, whilst remaining true to the script’s frustrated sense of doom. I am not sure whether I would have managed to weather the play if Alan Cumming hadn’t plastered a cunning smile on Hamm until the bitter end.

With Endgame following Rough for Theatre II, this double bill gives a curious structure to the proceedings: the former disentangles a deeply ordinary life, whilst the latter entangles two deeply extraordinary lives. Jones situates these two plays either side of the interval in order to play an echoing game that links play to play, character to character, person to person. After all, there’s no such thing as an ending if art is always there to pick up the echoes. 

Rough for Theatre II defines the suicidal headspace of the lonesome Croker through his psychological agents, named A (Daniel Radcliffe) and B (Cumming). This double act can be described as Croker’s memory police, who play a game of good cop bad cop in order to ascertain whether Croker should end it all in one rigorously-thought-through swoop by jumping out of the window. In Endgame, lives are similarly defined by their endings. Master Hamm (Cumming) and Clov the valet (Radcliffe), orbit around one another’s soul-destroying demands. In both plays, the pair stretch apart before pinging back together, like an ageing rubber band. 

We love to hate the old blind man Hamm posited centre stage, in his winged wheelchair throne. It’s as if Jones forbids his audience from feeling too much empathy, or too much pity in Endgame. Hamm commands our laughter, in addition to his valet and elderly parents, who have quite literally been deposited in trash cans. Costume designer Stewart Paing excellently characterises Hamm’s camp pomposity by dressing him in garments that drip with decaying grandeur. 

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Radcliffe, but his stellar performance rendered Harry Potter a distant memory by the end of the night (though the quivers of anger in Clov’s voice did seem vaguely familiar). Endgame is a play that enjoys testing its characters. Just as Clov obeys Hamm’s demands, Radcliffe obeys Beckett’s back seat driving. Clov embodies the neurotic meticulousness of the script’s stage directions, shuffling up and down ladders in organised disarray while sustaining a severe walking disability. 

By the end, an omnipresent feeling of frustration is certainly tangible. Has Jones managed to relate the play’s obsession for an ending, by either leaving or remaining, to Brexit? ‘Remain’ is the last word to be declared, although the human condition does seem to involve a continual wait for the next apocalypse.

Endgame and Rough for Theatre II are an excellently executed feel-bad pair of plays, filled with the frustration and paradox of playing at the unwinnable game of death.

Endgame is playing at The Old Vic until 28 March. For more information and tickets, visit The Old Vic website.