All That Fall
Out of Joint
Wilton's Music Hall
"Beckett is a playwright who should go straight into your head." So said the actor Ronald Pickup in 1986. Samuel Beckett’s first radio drama does just that.
Inspired by memories of Beckett’s native Foxrock, All That Fall is a play about human endurance; as Thomas Hardy put it, "faltering forward". Seven-two years of age, overweight and overwrought, Maddy Rooney hauls herself from her bed to make the slow trudge along the country lane which will bring her to the railway station at Boghill, an imagined Dublin suburb, where she is to meet her blind husband Dan on his return from his Dublin office.
Cranky and cantankerous, Maddy encounters an assortment of "crusted characters"—among them Christy the dung carrier, Mr Tyler and Mr Slocumb, an old flame who gives Maddy a lift after a farcical effort to stuff the rotund "two-hundred pounds of unhealthy fat" into his car. They arrive at the station to find that the train is 15 minutes late, an unheard of delay; during the laborious tramp back to their rural cottage, Dan’s reluctance to reveal the reason for the train’s unpunctuality accrues an onerous heaviness which merges with the weight of the threatening clouds that gather above.
Beckett famously refused to allow his radio drama to be staged in the theatre, arguing that "even the reduced visual dimension it will receive from the simplest and most static of readings... will be destructive of whatever quality it may have and which depends on the whole thing’s coming out of the dark." In this Out of Joint production—first seen at the Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival in 2015—director Max Stafford-Clark has taken the playwright at his word.
The audience are blindfolded throughout the performance and as the actors circumnavigate the auditorium, in which we are seated in rows, we follow Maddy’s journey through speech and sound. Stafford-Clark presumably intends us to become immersed in the aural experience for he has remarked that this device, "transports the audience back to a mystery world of Ireland in the '50s". Indeed, Beckett’s own meticulously designed soundtrack deftly establishes the milieu: he commences the play with a prelude of rural sounds—grunting sheep, mooing cows, crowing cocks—and this barnyard polyphony is subsequently juxtaposed with screeching train whistles, the clatter of rickety bicycles, noisy nose-blowing, scrunching gearboxes, skidding tyres—even the aural evocation of a defecating donkey.
Sound designer Dyfan Jones is faithful to the sound-script, and the surround reverberation is effective at times. We are alert to, and sometimes surprised by, movement—the sound of dragging feet is an urgent leitmotif—and by how close the actors are at times. But there’s little sophistication and, while the audience at Wilton’s Music Hall listened with hyper-attentiveness, minimal fidgeting and only the odd cough and splutter, when blindfolded one becomes highly conscious of one’s self, and of the act of listening. I was not transported to Boghill but instead very aware that I was in fact seated in a theatre.
That’s not to suggest that the production—which convinced me that this is one of Beckett’s best plays—does not have its merits. Chief of them is the performance of Bríd Brennan as Maddy Rooney. Brennan’s rich, relaxed voice effortlessly fills the theatre; even the barest whisper can convey the "sorrow and pining and fat and rheumatism" which the self-professed "hysterical old hag" laments are destroying her. Simultaneously crabby and comedic, self-indulgent and swaggering, the gabbling crone’s wittering and blathering could not hide the strength of her defiance and love.
Importantly, Brennan wonderfully confirmed Maddy’s aural vivacity and receptivity: she’s not just a talker, she’s a listener too. Maddy’s first words, as she hears the distant strains of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden string quartet, reveal her to have a sensitivity to sound to which we must aspire: "poor woman. All alone in that ruinous old house." As Brennan hummed the fading melody, and reflected on the grief of the woman within—whom she doesn’t meet—there were disturbing intimations of violence, which would grow in force as Maddy’s journey progresses.
We also recognise and appreciate her feminine subjectivity. Brennan’s voice impresses upon us the ‘fullness’ of Maddy’s being; her body—existing only in sound—is all the more present because of the absence represented by the play’s ghostly shadows: the grandchild that Mr Tyler will never have; Minnie, Maddy’s own unborn daughter.
If Mrs Rooney, defined by her garrulousness, dominates the play then the other characters make their marks too. They create a Celtic acoustic habitat. They like the sound of their own, and others’, voices: "Ramdam!" cries Mr Tyler (Gary Lilburn), gobsmacked by Maddy’s arcane lexicon. The lilting musicality of Irish voices in colloquial, repetitive counterpoint is compelling, and those whom Maddy encounters—Mr Slocumb (Ciaran McIntyre), Christie and Mr Barrell (Frank Lavery), Tommy (Killian Burke), Miss Fitt and Jerry (Tara Flynn)—offer eloquent ruminations on the familiar tropes of modernity: sterility, paralysis and death.
Lilburn is effective as Mr Rooney: Dan is his wife’s polar opposite, diminishing as she grows fuller, "if I could go deaf and dumb I think I might pant on to be a hundred," he mutters. Yet he also joins his wife in uproarious laughter when she comments, with bitter irony, on human misery: "the Lord upholdeth all that fall and raiseth all that shall be bowed down." The syntax of King James brutally reminds us of the decay of the Irish Protestant middle class, but alongside social comment there is brazen bawdiness, as the corseted Maddy entreats Mr Tyler to unlace her behind the hedge, cackling wildly.
It is only with the play’s coda, a reprise of Death and the Maiden, that we realise the full significance of Schubert’s melancholy, as Jerry rushes in with the news that train was delayed by a fatal accident—a child fell from a railway carriage and was crushed to death under the wheels of the train: "Christ, what a planet!"
The play is underscored by Maddy’s sense of "lingering dissolution", and at the end everything is dead, "just like our own poor dear Gaelic". Maddy speaks, therefore she is. But, at the close there is just silence.
When asked what his vision for the play was, Stafford-Clark reportedly replied—presumably with dry irony—that he had "no vision". But, All That Fall is an experiment in sound, a reflection on the ironies of radiophonic disembodiment, on the simultaneous corporeality and absence of Maddy’s carnivalesque two-hundred-pound body. And, on radio, silence can articulate the passing of time and spatial movement. So, why stage a radio play if you offer neither visual dimension nor aural interpretation.
In the theatre, the shuffling step which is the rhythmic heart of play, merging with the tapping of Mr Rooney’s stick and the sounds of wind and rain as the Rooneys stumble onwards into the dark, did not, to my ears, acquire its full emotional import.
We literally see nothing; I was reminded of the Emperor’s new clothes.
Reviewer: Claire Seymour