First published in The Times, Monday February 8 2015
The experience of seeing actors famed for television roles taking to the stage can be disorientating, requiring an adjustment on the part of the audience, a further suspension of disbelief. In Dominic Hill’s revival of Endgame at the Citizens, the curiosity value of seeing David Neilson and Chris Gascoyne – for many years Roy Cropper and Peter Barlow in Coronation Street – transferred to the strange landscape of a Samuel Beckett play is swiftly defused by the fact that both actors are almost unrecognisable from the outset.
Gascoyne, as Clov, shaven-headed, his body painfully contorted, lumbers around on the end of an invisible leash wielded by his master, the tyrannical, blind and immobile Hamm (Neilson), whom we first discover concealed beneath a dustsheet, his face obscured by a bloodied handkerchief.
What is gratifying about these performances is the way in which both actors transcend their grotesque appearances to affirm the humanity of a pair of characters locked in symbiotic balance with one another. While Endgame is among the bleakest of Beckett’s dramas, with the players largely lacking the blind delusion that allows the protagonists of Waiting for Godot and Happy Days to soldier on, the overall horror of the scenario is leavened here with bouts of dark humour. While the imperious Hamm takes sadistic pleasure in ordering about the hapless Clov, confident that his servant will not kill him for fear of starving to death himself, Clov takes revenge with subtle torments.
Pic: Tim Morozzo
Neilson and Gascoyne prove adept at physical comedy, creating recurring motifs for their characters that bring vitality to the stage and rise above Beckett’s stringent stage directions. Although the play’s action takes place within the confines of a single room, Hill’s production creates a haunting sense of the world beyond these bare walls, where humanity has been laid waste by some undefined apocalypse. As designed by Tom Piper and lit by Lizzie Powell, Hamm’s derelict throne room may recall Sartre’s vision of hell, but it also convinces as a refuge. When Hamm’s ailing mother and father (Barbara Rafferty and Peter Kelly) make their first appearance, rising from dustbins, the image seems entirely normal within the world conjured up.
The abiding sense is of a family torn between mutual loathing and co-dependency, love even. Alongside Hamm’s vanity and solipsism and Clov’s pathetic moments of rebellion, Neilson and Gascoyne offer glimpses of the deeper emotions and motivations that have kept these two together.