Best of Samuel Beckett: Mark Rylance hamming it up. (Part 1)

Lots of people tell me they don’t get Samuel Beckett.

Perhaps they have stared at a script in a Drama lesson at school, or watched a little bit performed out of context on film. My own first taste of Beckett was watching a play called ‘En Attendant Godot’, aged 18, all in French, in a theatre in Liverpool. I didn’t really get it either.

The trick is not to try. The trick is to immerse yourself in the humour and the language and the characters of it and to give it a go. And the best advice is to watch someone perform it who knows what they want to get out of it, and who is really good at what he or she is doing.

Beckett said: ‘James Joyce was a synthesizer, trying to bring in as much as he could. I am an analyzer, trying to leave out as much as I can.’

And he’s right, he does leave stuff out. But oh, the stuff he puts in – when it’s performed properly, it’s magic.

I have been very lucky to see two brilliant performances of Beckett plays live. I will blog the second one another time. The first was Endgame in 2009, in The Duchess Theatre in London. Théâtre de Complicité, with much of it’s work rooted in director Simon McBurney’s Lecoq training, and therefore full of animated physicality, performed a masterclass in Beckett, showing why it is both entertaining and bittersweet .

Nell, played by Miriam Margolyes, spends the entire play in a dustbin, next to another bin containing her husband Nagg, played by Tom Hickey. They cannot move and they are tragic in their tender symbiosis, yet she says ‘Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.’ Later in the play, Nell dies in her bin – and then Nagg dies of a broken heart.

Hamm, their son,  is blind and in a wheelchair and he is seated throughout the play, squirming and waving. Their world is one room, a prison; they dwell upon their past and seem to have no future.

McBurney, as the servant Clov, waits upon Hamm. He can move, he is unable to sit: he is downtrodden and disenfranchised, but his blighted life is quirky, touching and amusing as he staggers stiff-legged at Hamm’s beck and call.

All four performers are magical but Rylance excels as Hamm, a blunted hammer who beats and subjugates the others, who are his nails. (Clov – clou in French; Nagg – nagel in German. Nell, I am guessing, is ironically her own death knell). Hamm lurches from side to side, his emotions ranging from cruel to hysterical. At times he dominates, at others he is a martyr. He is a spoilt child, he is a torturer; he is suffering, he hands out pain. Rylance manages to make his character furious, humorous and always expressive as he performs with high energy, his vocal skills and changing pace both communicating his need to dominate and his need to be pitied. He is vulnerable yet he is a parasite.

Beckett is a master at using words. He once said:’Words are all we have.’

Ever the witty pessimist and a genius with linguistics, Beckett also said ‘Nothing matters but the writing. There has been nothing else worthwhile… a stain upon the silence.’

And there you have Endgame, a sensitively written thing of beauty, perfectly performed, leaving you at the final curtain feeling the  stain upon the silence, because we as an audience cannot care for the emotionless, self-centred Hamm, who is left on stage at the end of the play to starve to death. Although nothing much happens in the play in terms of action, it is bleak and powerful.

Look here at Hamm’s monologue as an example of Beckett’s brilliantly sensitive language:


One day you’ll be blind, like me. You’ll be sitting there, a speck in the void, in the dark, for ever, like me.
One day you’ll say to yourself, I’m tired, I’ll sit down, and you’ll go and sit down. Then you’ll say, I’m hungry, I’ll get up and get something to eat. But you won’t get up. You’ll say, I shouldn’t have sat down, but since I have I’ll sit on a little longer, then I’ll get up and get something to eat. But you won’t get up and you won’t get anything to eat.
You’ll look at the wall a while, then you’ll say, I’ll close my eyes, perhaps have a little sleep, after that I’ll feel better, and you’ll close them. And when you open them again there’ll be no wall any more.

The stage is a desperate place where four characters act out the intensity of life as they all totter towards death. The set is visually powerful, a dark and foreboding skull – shaped prison with two high and unreachable windows, and the acting is always acutely moving.

McBurney is a great actor and director; he’s ubiquitous in his film roles too. He pops up in The Last King of Scotland, Harry Potter, and the most recent Mission: Impossible, but he is undoubtedly most magnetic on stage.

Rylance has had huge acclaim for his recent role in Bridge of Spies. He was the best Olivia I have ever seen in Twelfth Night, but that’s for another blog.

Back to Beckett and his genius: his ability to write plays which seep into the core of your emotional understanding, even if you don’t fully get him, is unsurpassable. He is a pessimist and a master of words and emotions, and it is always entertaining, therapeutic, uplifting and cathartic to watch his plays performed well.

I’ll leave the last word to him: his plays are encapsulated in the following quotation:

‘The tears of the world are a constant quality. For each one who begins to weep, somewhere else another stops. The same is true of the laugh.’


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