Endgame | Rating: **** | Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow
Set by designer Tom Piper in what looks like a rusting metal bunker, this is a reading of Beckett’s text that makes an absolute virtue of the play’s terrible stasis, and of the subtle comic and tragic skills of its twin stars, David Neilson and Chris Gascoyne, both veterans of Coronation Street, playing Roy Cropper and Peter Barlow respectively.
Here, though, these two fine actors are on a different beat entirely, as they play Hamm and his servant-figure Clov, stranded together in their bunker following some global cataclysm that has left nature all but dead, and waiting for “something to take its course” - probably the death of Hamm, who is already blind, confined to a wheeled armchair, wrapped in an ancient smoking jacket and hat, and unable to move even for the most basic bodily functions. The grim scenario is not much brightened, either, by the presence in a pair of dustbins to one side of Hamm’s ancient, crumbling parents Nagg and Nell - although Peter Kelly’s superbly past-caring performance as an Irish-inflected Nagg, with Barbara Rafferty as Nell, produces some of the production’s most surreal and enjoyable comic moments.
Yet despite the sheer terror and gloom of their situation, Hamm and Clov continue to be stubbornly human, bickering, storytelling, and even offering the odd lugubrious joke. Neilson’s Hamm is an immensely commanding and compelling figure, an obvious once-wealthy first cousin of the spoiled but vulnerable Pozzo in Waiting For Godot; his rich voice caresses Beckett’s exquisitely spare language without lingering over it, creating a subtle sense of dynamism in this play where very little happens, and making it seem shorter than its 90 minutes. And although I have seen productions in which more fuss is made of the physical comedy of poor Clov’s efforts to do his master’s bidding, I’ve never seen one in which his ambiguous relationship with Hamm was more fully understood or, in the end, more movingly realised.
Endgame was written, of course, at the height of the 1950s Cold War, when the terror of absolute nuclear destruction haunted the earth. Yet its imagery of a world left barren and uninhabitable by the sheer force of human folly remains as timely as ever; as does Beckett’s all-too-credible suggestion that if humankind ever does reach its endgame, it will be with an irritable argument about grammar, a brief burst of storytelling, a curse at our seemingly non-existent God, and a final joke or two, the darker the better.
• Until 20 February