For one reason or another, we hadn’t been to the Old Vic since the daft unisex loos were installed, and, said my wife, “Something else has changed.” It was very noticeable that the press night audience for the Samuel Beckett double-bill was much younger than when I last reviewed a production here: it is, of course, the “Harry Potter” effect. I am a Harry Potter virgin; but I can understand why the 30-and-under fans have come to see Daniel Radcliffe. The first thing to say is that he really gets “physical theatre.” Not only is his body-language eloquent, but he is a stage athlete. In the slight first play of the evening, the rarely staged Rough for Theatre II, playing the character named simply “A,” he makes an astounding standing leap onto a high-ish window sill, not once, but twice; the second time bending backwards and lighting a match to see the face of “C,” Jackson Milner, who has his back to us for the entire performance, as he presumably contemplates suicide by jumping from the window.
The title “Rough” seems to indicate that this is a blueprint, or set of notes for a play, rather than the play itself. But with the thrilling Alan Cumming playing “B” (they’re designated that way around, but it doesn’t actually matter), this is a full-fledged Beckett comedy with its characteristically sinister cutting-edge. Similarly dressed, “A” and “B” are bureaucrats of some sort discussing the fate of “C,” while sitting at identical desks with identical lamps and chairs. Besides the pair of stunning leaps, there’s a good deal of business with lamps going dark, matches being struck, a caged songbird being displayed in silhouette, files of papers falling, chairs moving, and long, funny soliloquies for Cumming in his best Scottish accent. His baritone voice is beguiling, skittish, and seductive, except when he is frightened and wants a bit of “Human warmth” by moving his chair near that of Radcliffe. The words themselves don’t seem to matter as much as the constant patter of speech and the awkwardness of the situation. Even when they are face-to-face, and thus side-on to the audience, Cumming projects his voice to the outermost seat in the balcony. Radcliffe’s soft tenor, though, is lost in their exchanges. For a moment I thought that this veteran, though young actor of screen large and small had not learnt the first lesson of drama school, and wasn’t projecting his higher voice.
Endgame proves I was wrong. In this more familiar play, Radcliffe plays “Clov,” the younger man/boy servant/substitute son of “Hamm” (Cumming), and he can be heard clearly even by the slightly-deaf me in row L of the stalls. Again, his sense of physical theatre is magnificent. He limps, as Beckett required, slaps himself (as if to say “silly me”) whenever he forgets something or does it in the wrong order, erects and climbs the ladder clumsily one rung at a time, then slithers down it, and peers down as though to fall over the vertiginous rim of an infinite dustbin. These are theatrical gestures my (elderly) generation will remember from vaudeville; and (my favourite) director, Richard Jones, is as careful with the execution of them as the playwright was in specifying them. In the final scene, Radcliffe, dressed to leave his master and the room, freezes, motionless, in a posture of quizzical hurt and menace.
As Hamm’s dustbin-dwelling parents, “Nagg” (Karl Johnson) and “Nell” (Jane Horrocks) could hardly be bettered. Nagg is given important speeches, of doom-laden common sense. The pity is that Beckett did not give Nell more lines, as we are cheated of seeing more of the prosthetically-altered Ms Horrocks.
But finally the evening and the honours belong to Cumming’s Hamm. Dressed as a punk/hippy/skinhead magus, blind and exploring his own scalp to find the fontanelle, he is ensconced in a throne-like chair on casters, revealing the narrowest legs and ankles imaginable. Alan Cumming is thin, I thought to myself, but surely not so emaciated – more prosthetics, and the feet turned towards each other to boot. Poor Cumming – can he actually stand up in this trick chair, I wondered? Or is he crouching on his knees for what is a very long time? Hamm wants his servant, summoned by a dog whistle, but also rejects him. He loves him, wants to be loved (and touched, and kissed) by him, yet spurns him at every opportunity. Hamm tries to give Clov the combination to (the safe in) the larder, so he can recover the gun and deliver the longed-for quietus to his master.
Does Clov finally leave Hamm? Richard Jones and designer Stewart Laing don’t answer the question, but settle it, in a coup de théâtre that also provides an ending for “Rough,” as the three walls of the entire set slowly recede on their way to black-out infinity.