Samuel Beckett wanted his plays done exactly as he wrote them and as he particularized them in his stage directions. Don't think of adding even a second tree, for instance to the Waiting for Godot set. His executors have followed the strict dictates, although they've recently bent them for All That Fall, the 75-minute radio play he composed as a 1956 BBC commission.
By good fortune for Beckett lovers, two productions of the often hilarious, ultimately profoundly unsettling work have been available in recent months, one playing through this Sunday (December 23) at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Fishman Space and one in London's West End. That one initially played the Jermyn Street Theatre for a few weeks and moved to the Arts for a few more weeks and is now closed.
As a rabid card-carrying Beckett fan, I made certain I got to both. Tantalizingly, they showed up in widely divergent formats, and although I more than admired both, I suspect Beckett might have preferred the Pan Pan Theatre Company treatment, led by the company's co-artistic director Gavin Quinn.
Quinn presents All That Fall as a radio play. (The title is taken from Psalm 145, where the palmist promises that God will lift the fallen.) The audience sits in rocking chairs--perhaps implying old age, the play's major theme--arranged in a semi-circle and facing a wall of 168 round lights. (Immediately, those old enough to remember listening to radio will recall the family facing the console in a similar seating plot.) From the ceiling, perhaps another 168 bulbs hang on cords.
Beckett wanted sound to be the main focus, of course, and asked for all kinds of sound effects that designer Jimmy Eadie abundantly supplies. The first heard when the room darkens are animal noises that come from the farm where Maddy Rooney (Aine Ni Mhuiri) lives and from which she's departing. She's walking to the train station to meet blind husband Dan (Andrew Bennett). Her cane pounding the road is prominent in the foreground sounds.
Along her lonely way to the station and on their lonely way home, she and then Dan and she encounter a series of neighbors. Though they're a motley lot and range in age, the one thing common to just about every one is a relative in poor health--someone or someones who, as one neighbor puts it, is "no better...no worse."
The most afflicted of them, however, remains cantankerous Maddy Rooney, who views herself as so shunted aside by the fates that at one point she blurts, "I'm left-handed on top of everything else." At another point, she utters a standard Beckett expression of terminal despair. In her case, it's "How can I go on?"
Some of those self-pitying outbursts are the laugh lines. They emphasize that, while Beckett considered life no laughing matter, he also considered life indeed a laughing matter.
The laughs fade, though. as the aging Mr. And Mrs. Rooney get closer to home and a storm simultaneously meant to be literal and symbolic overtakes them. That's when the enveloping--not to say enshrouding--sound effects overtake the audience/listeners.
Constructing his All That Fall as he has, Quinn creates the apotheosis of a radio play, whereas Trevor Nunn, who directed the London version, saw the piece much more as a stage play. Oh, sure, he had the nine actors--perched on chairs stage right and left--carry scripts as demanded by the Beckett flame-keepers. Furthermore, he and sound designer Paul Groothuis scrupulously included the requisite sound effects.
Nevertheless, Nunn likes the script as an opportunity for actors to strut their stuff. To prove it, he reunited Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon, who'd performed together previously in Yasmina Reza's two-hander, The Unexpected Man. With these leading purveyors of their craft showing every complex emotion they could muster, Beckett's short opus builds into something quite different from Quinn's comic-tragic surround-sound brew.
Atkins as the brittle Maddy having crossed the stage from left to right (where the train station is meant to be), and with Gambon as the sightless and worried Dan having escorted her from stage right back to stage left, they end the play hanging onto each other and staring wordlessly into space.
They are the embodiment of fearful old age. It's an image I won't easily forget, positioned as I was--and not more than four feet from Atkins and Gambon--in the first row of a Jermyn Street Theatre even smaller than the Fishman Space confine. I'll long remember these two great actors as helpless orphans of the storm.
So both the Quinn and the Nunn productions conclude with a maelstrom of sorts--Quinn's with an external one and Nunn's an internal one. The pair of storms, however, are instantly reminiscent of a tragedy to which Beckett often pays homage: King Lear. Think of the foolish king leading blind chum Gloucester across the heath, and here they are echoed--not just in Didi and Gogo of Waiting for Godot--but maybe even more so in Maddy and Dan.
We Beckett followers--and anyone interested in theater--have to be grateful that Quinn and Nunn badgered the Beckett estate for the rights to do All That Fall away from the airwaves. Looked at and listened to, Quinn's approach is funnier and more apocalyptic, while Nunn's quieter take is ultimately just as disturbing. Still, they've individually and exhilaratingly proved the property has a broader future as part of the great playwrights' legacy.