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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Duchess Theatre


  One happy family/Ph: Robbie Jack

It is dark. What little light there is is a sickly green. In Simon McBurney’s Complicite production of Samuel Beckett’s drama, despair is very nearly, but not quite, absolute—though the eventual glimmer of hope is faint indeed. Yet it presents its bleak vision with jagged dynamism, embodied in McBurney’s muscular, agile Clov and Mark Rylance’s sardonic, sadistic old stager of a Hamm.
It is a pairing that was not originally intended. Richard Briers and Adrian Scarborough were to have played these two mutually dependent adversaries who may or may not be father and son. Their withdrawal from the project led to Rylance’s recruitment and director McBurney doubling up as performer. The results bear almost unbearably bitter fruit: a spectacle of cruelty from which we cannot tear our eyes.
The participants in this grim game are imprisoned in Tim Hatley’s design of stained brick, their incarceration all the more piteous since McBurney makes us keenly aware of the people these decaying creatures once were. His Clov limps swiftly, if stiffly, from his coffin of a kitchen, and mounts the stepladder to survey the desolation outside through the filthy windows with alacrity. Much good this does him, however, trapped as he is in deadening routine with Rylance’s blind, chairbound Hamm. His pronouncements sonorous, hands fluttering to breast or brow, this theatrical petty tyrant is an aptly named ham. But while he’s highly entertaining, relishing the vaudeville rhythms and extravagant narrative diversions of Beckett’s dialogue, he is also flesh-creepingly nasty. When he predicts Clov’s future—a moribund copy of his own miserable past and present—he gently pours the words into his ear like poisoned honey.
His father, Nagg (Tom Hickey) and mother, Nell (Miriam Margolyes), who lost their legs in a biking accident and are kept by their contemptuous son in twin dustbins, are the objects of a snarling hatred that seems to spring from childhood unhappiness. The image of Hamm as a young boy, screaming unheeded by his parents in the dark and vowing the vilest of revenges, floats nightmarishly into the mind of the viewer, and resurfaces with Hamm’s infantile delight at the three-legged toy dog Clov has made for him. 

As the play draws towards its conclusion, Hamm sits regally in his shabby throne, useless legs dangling above the floor, clutching like a scepter the gaff with which Beckett, with poignant pointlessness, equips him, his stuffed canine on his knee, monarch of nowhere and of nothing. A dim shaft of optimism comes in the possibility that Clov, standing by silently, dressed for the outdoors, might finally escape from this despotic kingdom—but to what end? This production unflinchingly confronts the anguish of existence, of attempting to make sense of the finite process of being alive. Intensely grueling; mercilessly absorbing.


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