Duchess Theatre, London WC2

Opened 15 October, 2009


It is often noted that most of the characters’ names in Endgame – Clov, Nagg, Nell – are variants on the words in different languages for “nail”, with Hamm as the hammer that beats at them all. Less remarked, though, is that there is in Hamm a deep vein of the actor-laddie – the ham, in fact. And I have never seen this dimension played so fully as by Mark Rylance in Simon McBurney’s Complicité production. The formal, measured style of delivery invoked by much of Samuel Beckett’s writing is absent here from both Rylance and McBurney as Clov. When they let fly in rage or argumentation, they really empty their lungs; when Rylance’s Hamm hams it up, he often accompanies it with self-consciously florid gestures; and when he mutters an aside, as in his commentary on the story he makes up to pass the time, it is with the naturalness of a man obsessed with his own performance and giving himself notes.
This freshness may be partly because of, partly in spite of the fact that three of the cast of four are Beckett virgins. Only Tom Hickey as Nagg, Hamm’s legless, dustbin-ridden father, has appeared in the playwright work before. Here he is coupled with Miriam Margoyles as Nell in the bin next door, who is both grotesque and poignant when she sighs for yesterday or asks whether it is “time for love?”.
McBurney’s principal innovation as director (assisted by Ian Rickson, Marcello Magni and Douglas Rintoul) is this naturalness and fluidity, in as much as Beckett can ever be fluid or natural: here, after all, is a play set in Hamm’s gloomy room at a time when supplies of everything have run out, from the painkillers in his tin to Nature herself beyond the twin high, grubby windows. Paul Anderson’s lighting design poses some visibility difficulties for those sitting more than about halfway back in the Duchess, which is a small theatre by West End standards; and Gareth Fry’s sound design before and after the play proper is irritatingly reminiscent of ambient-industrial 1970s Krautrock, and entirely superfluous. Nevertheless, this is a production that can hold its head up beside the Michael Gambon/Lee Evans revival of the play five years ago, and Rylance is setting up a West End double pending the transfer in the New Year of his tour de force in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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