Beckett’s ‘All That Fall’ Rises Again
What first greets the eye in Samuel Beckett’s radio play, All That Fall, currently playing at 59E59 Theatre, is the sparseness of the whole enterprise. Seven mics are suspended from the rafters, and an unsightly semi-abstract metal contraption is placed upstage center. A single red light indicates that a recording session is about to begin. The actors file in, scripts in hand, taking their appointed seats. To be honest, it feels like an Irish wake.
For anyone familiar with Beckett, the Nobel prize-winning Dublin playwright (April 13, 1906-December 22, 1989), his plays are like no others — Waiting for Godot, Happy Days, Krapp’s Last Tape, to name just a few — full of dissolution, despair and gallows humor. The good news is that once Mrs. Rooney, as played to perfection by Eileen Atkins, shuffles into place in her modest little frock and pale yellow sweater, peering out from her bonnet into the dark void of the audience with drawn face and those unmistakable saucer eyes, we are exactly where we want to be.
The plot is simple enough. Set in rural Ireland, a rheumatic old woman heads down a country road on her way to the railway station to meet her blind and quarrelsome husband. Along the way, she encounters a pretty idiosyncratic bunch of folk that she grumbles with and beguiles to distraction. (Beckett’s landscape may be arid at times but his cast of characters is certainly not.) There’s Christy (Ruairi Conaghan), with his hinny (that’s Gallic for mule) and his cartful of fresh dung. He offers her some, but she makes it clear there’s no use for it at her time of life. Frank Grimes as Mr. Tyler is a jolly sort of man, saddled with a bum bicycle yet who wastes no time letting Mrs. Rooney know what a blessed thing it is to be alive — she is quick to lay him flat with her retort: “Speak for yourself. I am not half alive nor anything approaching it.” The irony lies in just how alive the woman is — through her endless litany of woes and rebukes, she can muster the energy to put most of the rest of the townsfolk to shame. Her self-deprecation is operatic: “How can I go on. I cannot. Oh let me just flop down flat on the road like a big fat jelly out of a bowl and never move again!” But she does go on. Out of earshot of Mr. Tyler, she curses her corset, calling after him to unlace her behind the hedge, and laughing wildly at the idea of it.
Her next encounter is with none other than a Mr. Slocum, a racehorse clerk who sports a fine limousine — that odd metal contraption mentioned earlier in the review. He offers her a lift but getting Mrs. Rooney into any vehicular conveyance we are led to believe is a questionable enterprise. It’s a rich, drawn-out pantomime, from attempting to lift her up into the passenger side — coming dangerously close to some indecorous frisking in the process, and finally getting her aloft. Then come the blasts and rumbles and toots of getting the contraption started and on its way. It’s a brilliant piece of burlesque, and allows Atkins’ prim and proper character the opportunity to show she’s hardly naïve to the earthier aspects of her predicament. Trevor Cooper as Mr. Slocum is a pompous, blustering buffoon and holds his own in concert with Atkins.
It’s a dream of an ensemble cast and no part seems too small to warrant a first class impersonation. There’s Billy Carter’s Tommy, as a sullen station worker and Catherine Cusack’s Miss Fitt, a churchwoman who shares the pew with her on Sundays but is so pious and preoccupied that she hardly recognizes Mrs. Rooney at this juncture as anything but a “big, pale blur.” Mrs. Rooney’s in a pickle because the train is late and is not about to accept stoical stationmaster Barrell’s (James Hayes) offhand explanation that it’s just a “hitch.” Then there’s the young boy Jerry (Liam Thrift) who helps old Mr. Rooney off the train and must reluctantly report on that inexplicable “hitch.”
Beckett has craftily managed to save the other half of our desolate Rooney pair for the last. When Michael Gambon finally appears off the tardy train ride, sightless though he is, he’s a confused, bumbling, irritable giant of a man, pitching back and forth from how old he is to the number of steps he must count with his walking stick. “Do not ask me to speak and move at the same time,” he exhorts to Mrs. Rooney. He brings to the role the stature of a Lear, mad but not about to exit quietly.
The reunion of the two is heart wrenching and Atkins has met her match. Even in his blind desperation we sense he has witnessed the unthinkable on his brief journey and his blindness will not protect him from the pain of what he knows. Arm in arm, they shuffle along together, and there’s an intense poignancy in watching his trembling hungry hands, reaching out to touch her frail body, as if she’s the lifeline that will get him safely home.
Beckett is an actor’s playwright. He’s not for all actors but for those who can handle his questioning universe, his sometimes unbearable silences broken by ear-splitting shrieks and sudden bouts of hysteria and buffoonery, he’s worth the challenge. Writing sporadically for radio, a particularly demanding medium which requires of the listener a willing ear and a developed “suspension of disbelief,” Beckett was commissioned in 1956 by the BBC to undertake All That Fall. Under the direction of Trevor Nunn, the longest serving artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, as well as the director of the National Theatre from 1997 to 2003, this current production was first presented at Jermyn Street Theatre in London and subsequently at The Arts Theatre in the West End in November 2012. Nunn has focused on bringing the writer’s words, whether a string of expletives or a lyrical monologue, main stage and has let his performers luxuriate in them. The idiocy and the anguish of these characters’ predicaments that surfaces through speech is never better than when delivered by two masters like Atkins and Gambon.
A radio play, after all, is meant to be a cornucopia of sound, not only the insistent sound effects of the world the writer’s characters inhabit — cycle bells, chicken clucks, and the simple tread of feet, for instance, but the words themselves. Of course, we are doubly rewarded by the exposure to a work delivered to us as an on-site performance for the eyes as well. The conceit of scripts-in-hand is hardly worth mentioning, and forgotten soon enough as Mrs. Rooney’s journey comes alive for us.
Would these performers be quite as agile in their pantomime for radio, safe from the otherwise prying eyes of a live audience? Why not? For actors of this caliber, accustomed to using their whole instrument in a performance, it’s not surprising that the facial extortions and the sway and jerk of limbs are inextricably linked to the voice. There’s a temptation to close one’s eyes for a few seconds and just let the sounds wash over one’s experience as the original listener would have done, but here the larger temptation is to keep them open.
Nevertheless, sound effects in a radio play must take on a primary role, and to that end sound designer Paul Groothuis has done an exemplary job. Beckett could be a hard taskmaster when it came to the absolute adherence to the timing of every step, shout, and silence in his stage works. And there are moments when the scuffling and slush of feet to denote Mrs. Rooney’s laborious walk seems interminable and even thunderous. To measure how much of that is Beckett’s doing and how much of it is the sound designer and his crew is a fine line to draw. Still, there are other ambient moos and whistles and the like that add to our appreciation of the locale and don’t detract from the actors’ own lines. Here and there, a heaviness in the brogue or unfamiliar word may tempt our American audiences to say, “come again?” but with a performance so expertly played, we can forgive the occasional hitch of a “hinny” or “Stydung” (a class of dung) in the script.
It’s interesting to note that in James Knowlson’s biography of Beckett, the writer mentions his familiarity with James Joyce’s work and how that writer expanded his revisions. But for Beckett, the opposite was true: “I realized that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than in adding.” The critic Vivian Mercier has said that Beckett had done with Waiting for Godot and other plays a “theoretical impossibility. He had written plays “in which nothing happens, that yet keeps audiences glued to their seats.”
All That Fall once again proves that Beckett’s form of nothing goes a long, long way.
“All That Fall” is presented in a limited run through Sunday, December 8th at 59E59 Theatres, New York, NY 10022. For more information, including tickets and schedule, please visit http://www.59e59.org/ or call 212-753-5959.
Featured image: L-R: Michael Gambon and Eileen Atkins in Samuel Beckett’s “All That Fall,” directed by Trevor Nunn, at 59E59 Theaters. Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg.