At the end of this month, an all-star cast featuring Alan Cumming, Daniel Radcliffe, Jane Horrocks and Karl Johnson will perform Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, in a double-bill with Rough For Theatre II, at the Old Vic.
Endgame stands as one of the Beckett’s finest works, and one of the strongest examples of his use of the dark, troubled comedy double-act, tormented by the bleakness of the human condition, brutally antagonistic, but utterly reliant upon one another.
Vladimir and Estragon, the down-on-their-luck clowns in Waiting For Godot, are surely the best known example of this, visited in turn by the horrifying Pozzo and Lucky.
In Happy Days, the half-buried Winnie and her almost unseen husband Willie make up another double-act.
In the rarely performed Rough For Theatre II, one half of the line-up at the Old Vic, a pair of bureaucrats stand either side of a man about to commit suicide to help him decide whether or not to go through with it.
In Endgame, the stage is shared by a pair of duos – the blind, wheelchair bound tyrant Hamm with his servant Clov, and behind them, Hamm’s dustbin dwelling parents.
In the 1950s, Endgame had a strange relationship with the censors. Having been performed in French at the Royal Court in 1957 with the Lord Chamberlain’s permission, when it came to presenting the show in English the censor banned the performance – principally for the inclusion of a line calling God a bastard.
The Evening Standard challenged the apparent absurdity of the situation, asking “Does this mean that the Lord Chamberlain considers all people who understand French beyond hope – unredeemable atheists or agnostics who need not be protected from blasphemy? Or does he believe that knowledge of the French language bestows immunity from corruption?”
Ultimately Beckett conceded, changing the word ‘bastard’ to ‘swine’, after which the play was approved for production.
However, Beckett did not always give-in to the demands of the censors, or to the creative vision of directors wishing to change elements of his work.
In Ireland in 1958, he withdrew all permission for his work to be produced as a protest against the cancellation of productions by James Joyce and Sean O’Casey.
In the 1980s, his agent took legal action against a theatre staging a production of Endgame in a subway tunnel.
“Any production of Endgame which ignores my stage directions” wrote Beckett, “is completely unacceptable to me. My play requires an empty room and two small windows. The American Repertory Theater production which dismisses my directions is a complete parody of the play as conceived by me. Anybody who cares for the work couldn’t fail to be disgusted by this.”
With its A-list casting, the production at the Old Vic has already become one of this year’s hottest tickets in London – it is up to director Richard Jones to decide whether to present a production of which Beckett would approve…
Endgame, in a double-bill with Rough For Theatre II, plays at the Old Vic from 27 January-28 March 2020