Kudos to Daniel Radcliffe. The Harry Potter franchise made him stupendously famous and rich, and he has used that position to undertake challenging work – on film, on Broadway but most especially in a series of modern stage classics in London. And he has grown considerably as a theatre actor since his stiff but career-reshaping stage debut in Equus in the West End 13 years ago. His performance here in Samuel Beckett’s post-apocalyptic study of power games and desperation is the best I’ve seen him give.
Radcliffe, now 30, plays Clov, the crippled servant to a blind master, Hamm (Alan Cumming), performing the same ritualised routines together, day after day, in a bleak living room in a blasted landscape, as their food and their will to endure slowly dwindles. Premiered in London in 1957, four years after his masterpiece Waiting for Godot opened in Paris, Endgame again balances wintry humour and existential despair.
Richard Jones’ production, which also features Karl Johnson and an aged-up Jane Horrocks as Hamm’s limbless, dustbin-bound parents, has a clear, astringent precision. This is oddly balanced by the larky playing of the rarely staged, 20-minute Rough for Theatre II, which precedes the main event like an unasked-for appetiser. Here Radcliffe and Cumming play administrators in an absurdist bureaucracy, assessing the life of a third character who stands aloft on a windowsill, his face never seen, contemplating suicide.
Even designer Stewart Laing’s set for this short piece sems showier than his deliberately drab room for Endgame. It’s possible Jones thought the evening needed beefing up or broadening out, but more likely he had an urge to set his unique stamp on a neglected theatrical cameo. Shame, as it lessens the impact of the longer play.
Anyway, although Endgame is the less overtly comic part of the evening, Radcliffe and Cumming make clear Beckett’s debt to vaudevillian music hall comedy throughout. The former performs brutally precise slapstick routines as he repeatedly forgets either the ladder or the binoculars he needs to conduct his pointless surveys of the dying sun, furiously slapping himself around the head.
Cumming adopts a braying, camply actorish delivery as if Hamm is hammily compensating for his chair-bound, sightless existence and the paleness of his spindly, immobile legs. They’re both fine performances, textured expressions of a threadbare existence. But I found myself half-wishing that the roles had been reversed, or even that the two men had alternated parts on different nights, as Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams did in the Almeida’s 2018 Mary Stuart. It would have been real proof of Radcliffe’s professional maturity to see him in the more autocratic but more physically limited role.
Johnson is very moving in Nagg’s monologue, and his garbled, canned conversations with Clov are very funny. Horrocks is impressive as ever, but it seems weirdly counterintuitive not to cast an older actress in the part. She was born just one year before Cumming. It’s an irksome little detail that slightly mars a fine revival of a demanding work.