Theatre: All that Fall, Arts Theatre

Dung and child murder are the key ingredients of this bawdy and rivetingly funny radio play by Samuel Beckett, performed on the stage here for the first time 

-Kathryn Bromwich

Michael Gambon and Eileen Atkins in Samuel Beckett's All That FallWho would have thought that old age and child murder could be so amusing? In recent times, Beckett seems to have garnered a reputation for po-faced highbrow literature, yet the play’s sharp comedic wit and raunchy double entendres should come as no surprise (’Stiff! Well I like that! And me heaving all over back and front’). An optimist he is not, but Beckett is a master of both gallows humour and poo jokes. Here, the humour is amped up with cartoon-style sound effects and fast, sharp delivery worthy of a screwball comedy.

On the other hand, Beckett is not usually one to employ tropes as bourgeois as plot, character or setting. The Unnamable is more typical: 200 pages of unpunctuated ramblings from a limbless, perhaps bodiless entity in the middle of a darkened space, talking about the nature of language and existentialism. Or How It Is, a prose piece about two figures walking through mud, which rhythmically repeats a handful of key phrases with the occasional slight variation.

In All that Fall, conversely, you get all of these devices. The play is said to be Beckett’s most Irish and strongly autobiographical: the setting is the Irish town of Boghill, based on Beckett’s native Foxrock, near Dublin. The action is structured into three distinct sections: the trip towards the train station, the station itself, and the walk back home. The characters are fully fledged, with names and back stories rooted in real settings. There is foreshadowing, suspense, and finally a big reveal. Yet, one would be pushed to call the play ‘conventional’.

The story follows septuagenarian Maddy Rooney as she tries to get to the train station in time to meet her blind husband Dan after a Saturday morning’s work. As she walks there, she encounters a succession of male friends who offer her a lift in increasingly modern forms of transport, but her journey is beset by obstacles. When she finally arrives at the station, late, she finds that the train is delayed by a huge quarter of an hour, the reasons for which we find out later.

Beckett’s recurring preoccupations appear again and again in his work, and this play includes many of them: Irishness and exile, old age, rotting, non-existence, Dante, the failure of language to represent the world, the inadequacy of God and religion, and dung. The piercing critique of organised religion comes in the form of pious Miss Fitt, whose Dickensian name marks her out as the ridiculous and strange character she is.

The piece’s origins as a radio play are underlined rather than effaced in this stylised production, in accordance with the wishes of the famously strict Beckett Estate. The actors carry scripts, which impede their movements and interactions with each other, and the sound effects are deliberately incongruous. Eileen Atkins’s Mrs Rooney is svelte, yet her footsteps are made to squelch grotesquely, to match the character’s four hundred pounds of audible flesh.

This transposition from the radio to the stage is generally smooth; however, the theatre production hints heavily towards a certain interpretation of events, which could perhaps have been left more open to discussion. The ending is, necessarily, much more ambiguous in the radio play, where you can’t see the characters or their reactions.

The production is an acclaimed one, directed by Sir Trevor Nunn and with Sir Michael ‘Dumbledore’ Gambon as the cantankerous Mr Rooney. Yet the standout performance is from Eileen Atkins: funny, warm, and played with genuine pathos where necessary. It would be misguided to look for any trace of feminism in the play – like many of Beckett’s women, Mrs Rooney embodies the typically female faults of garrulity and melodrama – although, in fairness, the male characters hardly come out of it well either.

To play this role, Atkins turned down a lucrative film role in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street involving a sexy scene with Leonardo di Caprio, which then went to Joanna Lumley. Yet, judging from the gusto with which Atkins embodies the role of Maddy Rooney, it looks like she’s having much more fun at the theatre.

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