Is Angst Adolescent?

Simon McBurney and Complicité have created a memorable production of Beckett’s Endgame

Philosophy Theatre
Mesmerising: Mark Rylance and Simon McBurney in "Endgame"

Just as there are, supposedly, a few things in life one should not try even once, such as incest or Morris dancing, there are certainly several things one should not try twice. Seeing Samuel Beckett’s Endgame (at the Duchess until December 5) more than once is often said to be one of them. None the less, and despite having seen a production of outstanding finality in 2003 — with Michael Gambon and Lee Evans at the Albery Theatre — I was tempted to go to this bleakest of plays yet again, because it was produced by Complicité theatre company, one of this country’s national treasures, and anything it does is worth seeing. 

Even so, Endgame seems a strange choice for this company, known for its imaginative and physical sense of theatre, as this play is in the most obvious sense very static: of its four characters, only one can move at all. Clov, the exploited manservant, can only just walk, while Hamm, his monstrous master, sits blind and paralysed in an invalid chair, and his two old parents are confined to dustbins, legless, comfortless and largely witless. Moreover, Beckett has imposed very strict theatrical limitations on any production — there is little room for invention by any director, still less for the exuberance and innovation of Complicité. Simon McBurney (co-founder of the company who both directs and plays Clov) has created a great production of what is not Beckett’s greatest play.

True, no one does existential angst better than Beckett, and his language here is mesmerising in its deathly wit and its whimsical, self-mocking, astonishing range. Mark Rylance as Hamm is at the height of his virtuosity, so supple, forceful and mobile in his voice and in his every movement from above his wasted legs that his performance is hypnotic. His Hamm is indeed very hammy at times, exploiting a great range of emotional posturing and theatrical gesturing, between moments of precise cruelty and despair. This is one of contemporary British theatre’s memorable performances. 

It seems odd to see such a physical actor as McBurney, gym-toned to near perfection with well-modelled arms bursting from a dirty singlet, playing the decrepit Clov, but he is convincing, particularly in the use of this implausible body to convey exhausted resentment and despair. Miriam Margolyes and Tom Hickey, as the dying parents Nag and Nell, reached — against the text, I thought — a touchingly pink-tinted, long-married and romantic tenderness for a few moments in their absurd conversation, which was surprising. However, a little of the sense of life’s futility goes a very long way: the profound hopelessness and nastiness of Endgame always seems to me, for all its wit and eloquence, excessive and almost adolescent.

There’s something adolescent about existentialism, it has always seemed to me. I suspect that some of its most famous exponents, such as Beckett himself, have not entirely embraced adult life, in the sense that they have been childless and have not had the respite from existential angst that children bring: ontological anxiety and an overwhelming sense of the absurd tend to fade upon parenthood.

Pains of Youth, at the Cottesloe (until January 21), is also about existential angst, but without any of the genius of Beckett. Written in 1926 by the Austrian playwright Ferdinand Bruckner and produced by the National Theatre in a new version by Martin Crimp, it concerns a small group of affluent young people in 1923 Vienna whose response to the pains — or the sickness — of immaturity, is to be extremely cruel to each other, for no obviously good reason. 

As usual in serious British theatre today, the direction, lighting, costumes, music and acting were all extremely good — I particularly liked the music and the authentically clumsy period underwear worn by a young lesbian countess. Even the programme notes were very instructive, offering helpful hints about 12-tone music, Stefan Zweig, Freud and the New Objectivity art movement in 1920s Germany. But none of this could disguise the fact that this is a very slight and unconvincing play — shocking, perhaps, at the time it was written, with its portrayal of drug addiction, lesbian infatuation, female emancipation, young women doctors, sexual exploitation, suicide and so on — and one which ought, whatever its fashionable appeal at the time, to have passed into oblivion.

The play seems to have no connection to the extraordinary social and intellectual upheavals going on all around, off stage so to speak. Presumably the general idea was to convey the tragic pain of free young spirits obliged to confront the heavy constraints of adult civilisation. But the impression the play gives today is of a collection of spoilt young things indulging themselves rather meaninglessly at each other’s expense and probably at their parents’ as well.

A new play at the Tricycle by Kwame Kwei-Armah about a prospective black mayor of London did not sound like much of a respite from such questions of identity. One could be forgiven for suspecting it of political correctness. However, despite the serious themes underlying this new and real possibility, Seize the Day (until December 17) was both fun and funny, though erring in the direction of talking heads. Jeremy Charles, a very appealing young black TV presenter, is suddenly rocketed into celebrity because, on camera, he knocks down a young black hoodie in the middle of a violent gang attack. A black man standing up to delinquent black youth is the perfect hero for our time. So, unsurprisingly, a group of black activists at City Hall takes Charles up and grooms him with awesome cynicism to be London’s first black mayor. 

The play is full of witty dialogue and disabused one-liners, mostly well delivered by a confident cast. “The last thing we need is someone who stands for something,” says one of the black activists. “F*** black people,” says the black mayor-maker. “We need to get the white masses to trust us…The black masses will follow.” However, for all Kwei-Armah’s very serious intentions, this play fails to go much beyond wit and charm. In its examination of some profound questions of black identities and black belonging, it remains superficial. The wit is less profound than it sounds: it is not hinting at hidden depths. 

“I don’t do the whole black thing,” says the hero, but this — a central issue of the play and of the subject — is not satisfactorily addressed. Nor is the theme of black political corruption in Britain, which Kwei-Armah has said he particularly wanted to deal with. He just touches on it. However, this was an oddly pleasurable play, heart-warming and, curiously, a far cry from existential angst.