"Something is taking its course", runs Hamm's refrain through Endgame; but what? It's one of the enduring mysteries that runs through Beckett's drama. What has happened to the world that has made everything decay? What has killed the light? Why is the ocean so endlessly calm? Most of all, what on earth has brought Hamm and Clov together into this sealed room? Why does Clov obey Hamm's every wish, like Caliban to his twisted Prospero, and what binds them to one another so that Clov can never quite bring himself to leave?
Tom Piper's blasted-bunker design underscores the bleak setting. Everything is stained with dirt, down to Hamm's handkerchief and Clov's bandages. It would be easy for Dominic Hill's production to wallow unremittingly in the bleakness of the dialogue and to underline the cruelty that runs deep through the play's relationships. Its main skill is that it refuses to do anything so simplistic. Yes, it revels in the bleakness, but it balances that brilliantly with the delicate strains of tenderness that run, at times barely perceptibly, through the text. Most importantly of all, it also finds the space to revel in Beckett's comedy. After all, as Nell remarks when she pops up from her bin, nothing is funnier than unhappiness, and there are times when the restricted setting of the hermetically sealed environment comes riotously close to a sitcom.
Best of all at capturing this balance is Chris Gascoyne as Clov. He's a natural comedian, using every inch of his face and body to bring his character to life. He tosses out his dark one-liners with nonchalant flair, and the brilliant physicality of his performance is captured in a spellbinding first five minutes of the play where, without speaking a word, he keeps the audience rapt by the way he sets the scene and comes to terms with his surroundings. Yet his final soliloquy is also strangely moving, and he burns with righteous anger when railing against Hamm's treatment of Mother Pegg.
Burdened with dark glasses and trapped in his wheelchair, there are fewer opportunities for David Neilson's Hamm to get physical, but he uses his voice like a weapon of war - half laconic, half terrifying - and he leaves you questioning whether the power dynamic between him and Clov is really all that it seems.
The real tenderness in the play comes from Nagg and Nell, played as old dears who are full of affection, despite their horrible surroundings. Barbara Rafferty's memories of their holiday on Lake Como, or their tandem crashing in the Ardennes, provide the most recognisably human moments in the play, and Peter Kelly's lament, when he discovers her death, is strangely moving.
Hill, the Citz's artistic director, has chalked up a clear win for them here. It's the kind of theatrical experience that leaves you shaken yet also strangely elated questioning life but hinting that, perhaps, not all hope is lost.
Endgame runs at Citizens Theatre until 20 February, then at HOME, Manchester 24 Feb – 12 March