LONDON — The title alone would seem to capture how many people here are thinking about this apprehensive chapter in history, as the long goodbye known as Brexit grinds into laborious gear. “Endgame,” perhaps Samuel Beckett’s greatest study of living in the shadow of mortality, has been given a starry revival at the Old Vic Theater, with Daniel Radcliffe and Alan Cumming finding the comic fireworks in cruel, old-age codependency.
But the laughter these actors elicit in Richard Jones’s upbeat downer of a production — part of a double bill with Beckett’s seldom performed “Rough for Theater II” — is of the hard, startled variety that comes when dire truths are acknowledged. As a dying old woman in a garbage bin (pricelessly portrayed by Jane Horrocks) puts it, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.”
That’s shortly after Nell, as she is called, tries to kiss her husband, Nagg (Karl Johnson), who is confined to an adjacent bin, and finds that neither of them has the strength or muscle control to make physical contact. At the Valentine’s Day performance I saw, the Old Vic was packed with couples in public-display-of-affection mode, perhaps anticipating their shared future.
I had spent the night before contemplating a land in a state of unspecified civil warfare courtesy of the Donmar Warehouse’s revival of Caryl Churchill’s “Far Away,” staged to penetrate by Lyndsey Turner. As that dystopian tale unfolded with a disarmingly natural first scene, I could sense stifled snorts from the audience when a woman told a frightened little girl, who had just witnessed harrowing acts of violence in the backyard, “I’m trusting you with the truth.”
Because by that point, it was clear that nothing this woman said to the child was going to be honest or accurate. The succeeding scenes would demonstrate that truth — in the angry, teeming world of “Far Away” — had become not just relative, but also ultimately unobtainable. What was left in its absence was unending, murderous collision, with no one being sure of who stood for what anymore or who was on whose side.
None of the plays I saw on my February trip to London — which was sandwiched between two catastrophic, flood-bringing storms — were what you might call cheerful, or even vaguely hopeful. The two big openings during my week there were Tom Stoppard’s “Leopoldstadt,” a rueful history play about anti-Semitism in 20th-century Vienna, and Tony Kushner’s sprawling adaptation of “The Visit,” Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s grim fable of human greed as a loaded weapon.
But for pure, unsettling immediacy, it was hard to top those more concise, more abstract decades-old masterworks from Beckett and Churchill. “Endgame,” first staged in London in 1957, has long been a staple of university lit classes. And it will always seem relevant as long as human beings grow old and die.
Still, the view of any work of art changes according to our distance from what it portrays. A college student may intellectually savor Beckett’s vision of the corrosive effects of time in its depiction of a tyrannical, blind and disabled man, Hamm (played by a deliciously splenetic Cumming) and his resentful manservant, Clov (Radcliffe). It takes someone a few decades older, though, to fully appreciate the play’s merciless evocation of a life with a front-row view of its own end.
Similarly, watching “Endgame” in this incarnation, I found a creepy new pertinence in its depiction of a blighted, blasted world beyond the single, decrepit room in which Hamm, Clov, Nagg and Nell live (barely) in virtual captivity. When Hamm says, “Nature has forgotten us,” and Clov answers, “There’s no more nature,” it doesn’t register, as it once did, as a pathetic projection by the ailing and aging on everything that surrounds them. It’s tomorrow’s weather report.
Clov is able to make this brutal assessment because, unlike Hamm, he still has his eyesight, though it’s failing fast. He is regularly bid to peer through a telescope out the window (where what he sees is described as “zero, zero and zero”). The windows are very, very high, which means that Clov has to use a ladder to reach them.
This in turn allows Radcliffe to make the most of the very difficult business of climbing a rickety ladder. Movement of any kind is a fraught proposition for Clov, and in a highly disciplined physical performance, Radcliffe turns every act of locomotion into a Sisyphean dance. Walking, for example, isn’t a matter of putting one foot in front of the other, but of twisting the legs into an inefficient, crablike shuffle.
This process is exceedingly painful to watch. It also embodies why this production is not, finally, depressing. The energy that’s expended in Clov’s every movement — and, for that matter, in Hamm’s vicious tirades — testifies to the fact that where there’s life, there’s, well, life.
No matter how futile the struggle to live may turn out to be, Beckett always revels in the very fact of that struggle. For him, theater — with its heightened emphasis on words and gestures — becomes the ideal temple for such celebration.
Jones’s production, designed by Stewart Laing (set and costumes) and Adam Silverman (lighting), emphasizes the theatrical, and particularly the vaudevillian, elements of “Endgame.” So do Cumming and Radcliffe, who appear to be having the time of their lives in acting out their characters’ endless misery. They bring a similar, if lighter, charge to the curtain-raising “Rough for Theater II,” in which they portray two celestial (or infernal) assessors, taking inventory of the existence of a man about to commit suicide.
I first encountered “Far Away” in its American debut at the New York Theater Workshop in 2002, directed by Stephen Daldry (who had overseen its London debut two years earlier). At that time, I wrote, “For New Yorkers living in the elongated shadow of Sept. 11, the waking dreamscape of ‘Far Away,’ where the promise of violence broods in even the coziest corners, is bound to feel familiar.”
As designed by Lizzie Clachan — and performed by a cast that includes Aisling Loftus, Simon Manyonda and Jessica Hynes (a comic virtuoso in the TV series “W1A”) — Turner’s interpretation is brighter than Daldry’s was. And audiences now seem more willing to laugh at the absurdity of its depiction of an age in which every species of creature is engaged in bewildering, internecine warfare. (Sample line: “The cats have come out on the side of French.” And: “It’s not as if they’re the Canadians, the Venezuelans or the mosquitoes.”)
I left the Donmar murmuring, “Well, that wasn’t as disturbing as I remembered it.” But the more I thought about the production, the more my memories of it rattled me. If “Far Away” provokes more laughter than it did before, it’s because the cockeyed, mutable, desperately divided world it summons seems even closer to reality than it did before.
Laugh, if you must, as you watch the grotesqueries of “Far Away.” There’ll be nightmares to follow when you go to bed. Even if trust is nonexistent these days, you really can trust me on this one.
The post The Prophecies of Beckett and Caryl Churchill Haunt London’s Stages appeared first on New York Times.