It is grim and grimy all right, with Mark Rylance’s blind, immobile Hamm gesticulating in the void, McBurney himself stomping stiff-leggedly around as the resentful Clov and Hamm’s legless parents, Nagg and Nell – beautifully articulated by Tom Hickey and Miriam Margolyes – emerging, when allowed, from beneath their downstage dustbin lids.
But this greatest of all Beckett’s plays, a sort of King Lear without the weather or the sub-plots, fails to strike out in any truly tragic dimension. While it is certainly a charade of tears, blindness and death, it should also be a post-apocalyptic chamber of horrors, a musical nightmare.
The last West End production five years ago, with Michael Gambon and Lee Evans, was more successful in conveying the ironic grandeur of the piece, and was a far more resonant double act, too, while a 1996 Katie Mitchell version with Alun Armstrong and Stephen Dillane at the Donmar was a stronger, stranger experience all round.
This production has a peculiar genesis, having previously announced an entirely different Hamm and Clov in Richard Briers and Adrian Scarborough. Who left first, who followed whom, and why, is not clear.
Despite the best efforts of Rylance, an oddly lightweight, non-magisterial Hamm, the production seems to have been punctured of its initial intentions. McBurney is clearly over-parted as Clov and his directing duties have been shared among no fewer than three associates: Marcello Magni, Ian Rickson and Douglas Rintoul.
Tim Hatley’s design and Paul Anderson’s lighting are okay, but they do not constitute any argument for a new look at the play, and the dustbins of Nell and Nagg are clearly scenic accoutrements rather than real habitations, though Nagg’s speech about the messed-up pair of trousers, and Nell’s remembrance of Lake Como, take us to a world before the end of it.
There is poignancy and silliness in the play, veering between soul-strafing sadness and startling absurdism, as in Nagg’s reminder that he loved Turkish delight perhaps more than his son, but was always there for him when the lights were out. This is what is most missing: Beckett’s grinding, grounded humanity. Complicite rattle the bones but muffle the heartbeat.
Endgame opened on 15 October 2009 (previews from 2 October) and continues until 5 December at the West End’s Duchess Theatre.