In Rough for Theatre II, two administrators named Bertrand and Morvan take time out from their important work to specifically discuss the starry night sky’s glory. It feels pretty much on the mark, these days, to stare off into the heavens and think about life, death, existence, and our place in the world. True to life, the planet and society are on the verge of collapse, or at least flailing about all around us. There’s environmental chaos causing all kinds of catastrophe, and this nasty COVID-19 virus forcing us all to self-isolate inside our homes for safety. It’s a timely treat, even though they didn’t realize it at the time, with Global Warming on our collective mind and pessimism and fear unrelenting in the air, that The Old Vicwould find that connection inside Beckett’s complicated and bleak works of theatrical art. We all know Waiting for Godot, almost all too well. I remember saying to a fellow theatre junkie that I don’t know if I could sit through another production of that play…but I probably will at some point. It is loved by actors, for its playful darkness and its strong abstract intentions, and will most likely come flying back to the stage pushed forward by big named talent desperate to give it a whirl. But these two plays, Endgame and Rough for Theatre II were unknown to me, but now, they will be entwined forever in my COVID-19 memories of confinement, as they connected most wisely to our predicament, staring out the window, wondering if it is safe for us to continue.
Director Richard Jones sets out with this double bill of one-act Beckett plays with an eye to deviate from many of Beckett’s descriptions, particularly within Endgame, the main attraction for the night of theatre. Visually arresting and verbally vibrant, the two plays, with the formidable team of Alan Cumming and Daniel Radcliffe in the center of the dark comedic spotlight, stand strong even with the alterations made. They vibrate in charismatic inventiveness to one another, playing with conflict and giving us a view into the dismal chaos outside and inside our noisy, angry, scared heads. Starting with the rarely produced short play Rough for Theatre II, Radcliffe and Cumming play bureaucratic celestial servants sent down, up, or over, to discuss the fate of a distressed man standing on an open window’s ledge. We see his back, still against the sky, as he contemplates suicide. His name is, in playful and typical Beckett wickedness, Croker, an obvious playful pun. ‘To croak’ or to die, that is the question of the afternoon. Bertrand, meticulously portrayed by Radcliffe (Public’s Privacy) and Morvan, dynamically portrayed by the cunning Cumming (TNG/Vineyard’s Daddy), administrative angels of life or death, study Croker’s files trying hard to assess through testimonies from those who met him, whether this is the time and place for him to step off the ledge.
The man never moves nor does he speak throughout, but the two must work out, or help him decide, if he is to take that leap into the abyss. Life or death, that’s what is in the files and on the pair of identical tables where these two bureaucrats sit. Faulty lamps and wheeled chairs are there waiting for them, stage left and stage right, symmetrical in nature, but the characters are anything but cut from the same cloth. It’s word-play and banter at its best, as they attempt the task of codifying human experience in meaningful terms, interestingly containing shared echoes of both Kafka and Pinter. The two actors flourish in the parts, finding humanity and engagement even as they philosophize over the justification of a man’s difficult life. Radcliffe beautifully finds clinical rigidity within his station, while Cumming becomes increasingly flustered within the dynamic, but their connection never fails the piece. The production, strongly designed by Stewart Laing, finds kinship with the Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter (1957), a play written roughly around the same time Beckett was working on the first draft of this play. To compare, as two temperamentally differing men attend another kind of death, is an exciting mental exercise to roll around in, and one that adds layers of historical complexities to the text inside Rough for Theatre II. The two actors elevate the engagement, captivating us with their complicated comaraderie within their words and scenarios, and helping us to understand the wild and wonderful world of Beckett.
Rough for Theatre II is rarely seen or produced, created by Beckett around the same time frame as Endgame. But where Theatre II feels almost kind and engaging in its chatter and demeanor, Endgame projects an unnerving and mean sense of desperation alongside an emptiness of humanity, covered in a red cloth of comic ridiculousness. The apocalyptic nihilism of the construct seems steeped in Beckett’s historical reflection of the aftermath of the second world war and the possible nuclear threat of complete and utter annihilation. But seen now, as we all self-isolate and enclose ourselves in our homes, just like Endgame‘s characters, peeking out the window to see if safety is on the horizon, the parallel processing works its surprising magic most dutifully. Radcliffe embodies with precision and devotion the handicapped Clov, who is an entrapped servant and son-like figure to the brutal and blind Hamm, played with flair and expertise by Cummings. The pair find themselves locked in a complex stalemate of hateful attachment that binds. In this bleakly funny play, Radcliff finds an intense combination of physical comedy and frustration within his impressive deftly-orchestrated movements, finding expansion in the taunting stage directions that demand leaps and bounds from a physically disabled character. He climbs up and down ladders with an awkward style, peering out at the world for comparative inspection, while also finding a physically daunting way to see deep down inside trash bins with a silent hope to find some sort of compassion or connection to humanity, or what’s left of it. I’m honestly not that sure.
The wheelchair-bound Hamm sits defiantly, desperate, needy, and harsh to his son-servent while demanding attention and companionship, purposefully forcing discomfort on the young man, knowing full well he will always do as he is told. Stuck in that high chair, he enforces compliance on all, purposefully keeping his elderly parents, miraculously portrayed by Jane Horrocks and Karl Johnson, similarly entrapped in two modern municipal wheelie bins close by. The familial connections to one another are captivating and distressing all at the same time, reminding us that we, as a culture, find unique inadvertent ways to comfort ourselves that we are taking care of our elders, but in reality, they are as disposable as rubbish compared to our self-determined productive ways and means.
Cumming pulls forth all the charisma that he can muster, giving flair to the heartless old tyrant (supposedly those thin legs are not his won, so don’t fret). He delights in his theatrical preening, giving us a different flavor to the man than generally seen. It is interesting to take in that Beckett was undeniably against anyone not following his exact instructions as to how Endgame should be performed. Beckett described a “slow, flat, and metronomic performance” enforced by a metronome literally being used by Beckett to contain and formulate the actors’ speech patterns and tone of voice. Director Jones has decidedly veered away from this construct, letting his actors find humor and intentions outside of the flatness and repetition of the text. His actors expand and even delight in breaking Beckett’s formal stage directions, finding complexities and internalized attachments within the roundabout interactions. It’s a compelling concept, one that certainly adds flavor to an already daunting play that even with this streak of rebellion, tends to drone on and on, reversing and repeating itself for effect and purpose. It’s hard to imagine this world, where there is “no more nature” and the tides have seemingly disappeared, void of this level of heightened flair within their interactions. I found it difficult to stay tuned in as it is, let alone if they were to speak slow and flat. But would it add to its intended meaning? I’m not so sure, as I struggle to make sense of Beckett on the best of days, even as I simultaneously love the playfulness of his words and personal entanglements.
Compellingly simple but intellectually formidable to embrace, these plays are difficult to unwind but structurally not that complex. Obviously made for the stage, they drive forward on the backs of human interactions, but are hard to dissect. It’s impossible not to reflect on the current human condition and utter madness of confinement that hangs above our heads these days. My buddy and I were supposed to see these plays during our Spring London theatre trip, but the virus put a stop to that. And now we are confined, just like those Endgame characters, trapped within our homes, reflecting on the viral Armageddon and environmental catastrophe that looms just outside our window. Streets and other humans start to feel dangerous. A handshake and proximity could possibly carry illness and death, maybe not to ourselves but to those others we might come in contact with. In their distrustful framework, Beckett’s Rough for Theatre II and the more celebrated Endgame, Radcliffe and Cumming give us more bleakness than they could have imagined when they entered into this project. They also found a brilliant way to entertain us with Beckett’s wit and paradox. The timely Beckett Double Bill was to play until the 28th of March, but the world had a different plan, one that the early-ended Endgame knew something about before we ever did. So dig into Beckett’s dark and delicious world of word-play, and join these two very fine actors as they play the game of “Samuel Beckett or Eeyore” in the YouTube video below. You’ll be as amazed as they are with the brilliance of both. And don’t forget to donate to The Old Vic or a theatre company near you that you love. They need all the help we can give them, especially now, as we peer out the window like Radcliffe’s Clov, wondering if it is safe to go outside once again.
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