A wide, dim-witted grin floods Miriam Margolyes’ rag-doll face, her white-haired head tilted in vivid reverie. Ironically for a character about to die, her brief performance is filled with imaginative life. Her fractured relationship with her husband Nagg, played by a sweetly optimistic Tom Hickey, is heartbreaking. But when the supporting roles in Beckett’s “Endgame” make the strongest impact, something has clearly gone awry.
Elderly, chairbound, blind Hamm (Mark Rylance) rules the stage. Or at least, he believes he does. In fact, he is utterly reliant upon long-suffering manservant Clov (director Simon McBurney). Their fractious, symbiotic relationship is by turns abrasive, abusive and compassionate. But if this study of stasis, inevitability and the human condition is reminiscent of “Waiting for Godot,” its bleakness makes the earlier play look like the triumph of hope.
The Beckett estate was formerly and famously insistent upon productions following Beckett’s prescriptive stage directions to the letter. But over the last decade or more, that iron grip has relaxed, allowing such innovations as, for example, the vaudevillian thrill filling Matthew Warchus’ consciously theatrical version of “Endgame” with Michael Gambon and Lee Evans in 2004.
Which makes this dully dutiful staging by Complicite founder McBurney, one of theater’s most original directors, all the more disappointing.
In its defense, the production began rehearsals with Richard Briers and Adrian Scarborough as Hamm and Clov. They had long wanted to play Beckett’s master and servant, and when Scarborough left due to “over-committing himself,” Briers followed suit. McBurney then cast Rylance as Hamm and himself as Clov.
To counterbalance his resultant lack of directorial objectivity, McBurney has used three associate directors: Marcello Magni, Ian Rickson and Douglas Rintoul. But they have cleaved so firmly to the stage directions that they make oddly heavy weather of things.
This is signaled at the outset by the ominously slow rise of the curtain on Tim Hatley’s dour and dingy set. Beneath Paul Anderson’s wearyingly dowdy lighting, McBurney obeys Beckett’s instructions that Clov should be stiff-legged as he scuttles up and down the step-ladder. But although he elicits the odd murmur of audible amusement, this production’s comedy is barely laugh-out-loud.
His painstaking performance is unhelpfully subdued, only ever really rising out of resentment when he loses his temper. A similar problem also besets Rylance. At 49, he is young for the role of so debilitated a character. That partly explains the strain of his performance as it veers self-consciously between little-boy wheedling and anger.
As expected, Rylance is not short of physical expression. He turns the pocketing of a handkerchief into an event. With a high flourish of the wrist and arching up at an angle in his chair, he suddenly looks for all the world like an art nouveau lampstand.
But too often, his sourness at his benighted situation curdles into off-putting shouting. And, invariably onstage, shouting reduces what should be specific into generalization. There’s too much rage, not enough range. And without the latter to surprise and hold the audience, the play sinks numbingly into repetition.