Sitting through Beckett can be taxing at the best of times, but six weeks post surgery, mid-Brexit, I worried it would leave me numb, both physically and mentally. You couldn’t go so far as to say it’s uplifting, but director Richard Jones’s smushing together of Samuel Beckett’s little-performed Rough Cut for Theatre II and the better-known Endgame – held together by a not-at-all-tenuous thread of the tortuous meaninglessness of existence – pulses rhythmically along, managing to eek out a surprising amount of funnies amid the despair, which I guess is all any of us can do.
And for all the doom and gloom, Beckett’s beautiful language swims in the ears like a soothing song. Existential crisis averted, for now.
The laughs come from the sheer physicality of both productions and the two leads performance, which sits neatly alongside the absurdism and rhythmic beauty of the dialogue. In Endgame, the former comes in the form Daniel Radcliffe’s semi-slapstick Clov. Looking like a 1960s’ middle manager fallen on hard times, he limps around the stage dragging a step-ladder which he ascends with startling staccato steps before awkwardly sliding back down in a way that’s as ridiculous and as it’s dangerous. (If Radcliffe gets to the end of the run without at least one trip to A&E it will be a small miracle.) At times, this contrasts with his heavy gait in a way that’s a little distractingly inconsistent, yet his energy and presence around Stewart Laing’s set lift the weight of Beckett’s nihilism for a moment before the words crash it back down, each time heavier than before.
But Radcliffe struggles to get outside himself, disappear into the character and land Beckett’s truth bombs. He skitters across the surface of the meaning, never quite taking the plunge, endlessly caught in the enormous orbit of Alan Cumming’s throbbing charisma. Cumming’s Hamm is the gravitational centre, drawing people’s orbits closer with his narcissistic neediness, before flinging them out again with his cutting barbs. Beckett’s Hamm could be a caricature of cruelty but Cumming – sat on his throne-like makeshift wheelchair-cum-armchair – makes him just human enough to ring true, with snippets of sad self-loathing. There’s little a slice of Hamm in those occasionally toxic friends and a whole joint in a certain leader of the free world. The only one in danger of outshining him is Jane Horrock’s brief appearance as Nell. Her world-weary grace as she pops up from her wheelie bin stage-left provides an antidote to the toxicity on display and she effortlessly fills the auditorium from her lowly position stage-left.
The play oozes with timeliness but Jones’s deft direction leaves the audience to find it bubbling away around the edges themselves. There’s coercive control, environmental collapse, the end of truth and the absence of hope. We’re saturated with this stuff so Jones avoids over-doing the contemporary pointers.
But the set delivers some gentle time framing and hammers in a few nails of relevance: sickly lilac walls and UPVC windows are a vision of 1990s Changing Rooms small-town aspiration. Now in disrepair, this room’s glory days are a few solid decades behind it. So that puts us right about now or in the very near future. And it’s fucked. Adam Silverman’s lighting, which dissects the set horizontally leaving a rim of darkness perpetually hanging overhead like a guillotine waiting to fall, adds to the sense of foreboding – for both the characters and ourselves.
The quick appetizer that is Rough Cuts II plays as pessimist’s It’s a Wonderful Life, with Radcliffe and Cummings as men in black, government inspector-inspired omniscient deities debating the value of the life of man’s who’s poised to commit suicide. As a play, it feels at once more elusive and energetic than Endgame.
It shares Endgame’s callousness-as-human-nature theme but this time gives Cumming’s the opportunity to stalk the stage, radiating physicality and charisma. The black-and-white, strikingly symmetrical set centred on the silhouette of a tracksuited everyman frozen in a window frame is a startling visual image that essentially does the words’ work before they’re spoken. But it’s an interesting offering that underscores the evening with the sense that endurance is the name of the (end)game.