Review - Alan Cumming and Daniel Radcliffe in Endgame at the Old Vic

Endgame
Our critics rating: 
Date: 
Wednesday, 05 February, 2020, 10:19
Review by: 

In 2002, the late, great Elaine Stritch brought her solo show At Liberty to the Old Vic, in which she described herself "an existential problem in tights". Now, 18 years later, the same stage is hosting a double-bill of short Samuel Beckett plays that's an existential crisis in two acts, over which the playwright's usual preoccupation with the ever-present imminence of death casts a murky glow.

It is also, alas, a lot less enjoyable than Stritch's fiercely compelling, poignantly self-aware memoir, though the characters here share her knowing sense of enquiry about themselves, and a little of her mischievous playfulness. This is amplified in director Richard Jones's productions - played right at the front of the Old Vic stage on Stewart Laing's sets that juts out beyond it - by a relentless attempt to find laughs in every moment.

But this is the kind of crushing humour that simply dies in your throat even if you catch its improbable drift. As a result, this is mostly a strenuous, laboured evening that feels a lot longer than it is, and is unnecessarily padded out by the inclusion of the rarely-seen Rough for Theatre II, as a curtain-raiser to the main event of Beckett's more famous Endgame.  

While Beckett completists may appreciate the chance to see Rough for Theatre II, it's a teasingly pointless sketch which runs for barely twenty minutes in which two bureaucrats sit at their desks beside an open window, from which a man is supposedly poised on the brink of throwing himself to death. There's a lot of dry business with a malfunctioning desk lamp, but it hardly counts as dramatic action. A friend sitting in the top circle at the Old Vic texted me afterwards that it "made me want to throw myself off the Baylis circle."

At least it had the virtue of being short. Endgame, in which a grudging servant dances attendance on his blind, chair-bound master and his elderly parents, is four times longer and even more perplexing. As a study in terrible mutual co-dependence, in a world where resources are fast receding from grocery to medical supplies, there's an advancing sense of terror. The master Hamm's parents, meanwhile, are famously occupying onstage metal dustbins, lined with sand (after the sawdust has run out) as they await certain death but are able to briefly provide each other with momentary consolation.  

Richard Jones's productions are luxuriously cast with star names that might seduce unwary theatregoers. Daniel Radcliffe was last seen on the Old Vic stage in Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead in 2017, another vaudevillian double-act; if that play is dense and knowing, it doesn't require as much heavy lifting as this evening does, and Radcliffe is embarrassingly pressed into doing a ministry of funny walks in Endgame (and some unfathomable business on descending a stepladder which is sort of funny the first time but ridiculous by the eighth). He is paired with the enigmatically creepy Alan Cumming, whose naked, hairless match-stick legs reminded me of Glenda Jackson's similar uncovering in King Lear on this stage.

There are two brilliant cameo turns from a virtually unrecognisable Jane Horrocks and Karl Johnson as Hamm's parents, but they can't save it anymore than they can save themselves.

Endgame is at the Old Vic.

Endgame tickets are available now.

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