My 2020 Theatre Diary – February
This is an open monthly blog with a running roundup of shows I’ve seen each month throughout the year.
Endgame by Samuel Beckett, Old Vic (14th February)
We focused recently in my playwrighting course on the power of images both as potential sources for plays and for creating visual meaning for audiences. I was reminded about how effectively Samuel Beckett created startlingly memorable and telling imagery in the theatre by the several stark tableaux that are struck in Endgame. The figure of the blind Hamm fixed to his throne-like chair in the centre of the stage; the unnaturally high windows in the rear wall that Clov can only reach with a step ladder; and of course famously the heads of Nell and Nagg protruding from two dustbins downstage right. Beckett’s stage directions were notoriously specific because the images themselves establish the bleakness of his philosophical landscape. Although the prospects for the world and its characters appear without hope or faith in his play, there is still some joy to be had in the rhythm of his language and its black humour. This production is funnier than one might expect, and possibly than Beckett himself would have approved of. Alan Cumming as Hamm milks everything he can in his high-pitched suffering. Daniel Radcliffe as Clov does an effective comic turn with his wind-up movement and slapstick antics in the mode of silent cinema. Most of all, Karl Johnson and Jane Horrocks almost steal the show from their dustbins, catching not only the despair of their cruel position, but also the poignancy of their enduring but hopeless affection. The play has a number of passages of bleak poetry, and feels sometimes detached and distant, but the philosophical portent is never less than provocative, and there are moments of real sorrow for the characters’ hopeless predicaments.
As a footnote I was intrigued to discover when dipping into James Knowlson’s biography of Beckett that the Lord Chamberlain initially refused to allow the first English production of Endgame to proceed at the Royal Court in 1958 because they objected to Hamm labelling God a “bastard” when he fails to respond to their prayers. It was eventually allowed to go ahead when Beckett reluctantly replaced “bastard” with “swine”. One wonders if the censors hadn’t missed the whole point, as Hamm goes on to say “He doesn’t exist” anyway! It is hard to credit the pedantic concern for this semantic point in the context of Beckett’s overwhelming theatrical vision.
Collapsible – by Margaret Perry, Bush Theatre (11th February)
I first saw Collapsible when it premiered at the Vaults Festival a year ago. It has since been to Edinburgh and Dublin and now returns to the Bush in London. It is a perceptive piece of writing, full of humour from its sharp satire of professional and personal postures, as well as the intimate pain of our psychological fragility. The thread of the protagonist asking friends and family for concise words to describe her is a literal search for certainty about her identity. A certainty that is collapsible at any moment. Breffni Holahan reprises her award-winning performance, her exaggerated smile ineffectively disguising her turmoil and unhappiness.
The Sugar Syndrome – by Lucy Prebble, Orange Tree Theatre (7th February)
A revival of Lucy Prebble’s first play which premiered at the Royal Court as long ago as 2003. The play is partly set in the newly emerging world of dial-up internet and online chatlines, and while this now seems quaintly dated, the challenges of reconciling digital and real-life identities and relationships are as relevant and poignant as ever. Seventeen-year-old Dani makes contact online with two other lonely hearts: one a 21-year old boy looking for sex, love and respect, and a 40-something convicted paedophile who thinks Dani is an 11-year old boy. Although the subject of paedophilia is now less hidden than when the play was first seen, the close portrait of a man who is socially ostracised and wrestling with the demons and temptations of terrible acts remains disturbing. The clumsy attempts by Dani’s mother to reach across the generation gap to understand and support her defiant and defensive daughter are timeless and heartbreaking. Jessica Rhodes gives a startlingly vivid performance as Dani, her restless physicality exposing her mental anguish and the schizophrenia of both child and nascent woman caught in the chrysalis of adolescence. Prebble wrote this when she was just 22 – she has gone on to write major works Enron, The Effect, and A Very Expensive Poison – and although many of the critics have suggested this play has the weaknesses of juvenilia, this was a very impressive and provocative piece of theatre.