Pan Pan Theatre’s stage production of Samuel Beckett’s radio play All That Fall, playing four more times in the Terrace Gallery as part of The Kennedy Center’s Ireland 100 festival, is theatrical nirvana.
Can you name a contemporary playwright whose work has been as ground-breaking; as memorable; as wildly influential at the same time as it is has been inarguably unique, as is the work of Beckett? I can’t think of anyone at the moment.
That Beckett achieves so high a place in the pantheon while his oeuvre consists of just a few full-length plays, supplemented by many one-acts written for the theatre and several plays written for radio, is remarkable.
In his lifetime, he exerted unusual control over his work, routinely denying requests to allow, say, an all-female Waiting for Godot. (Only Mr. Albee, I believe, can be said to rival him in that respect.) And his estate has continued to exert that degree of control. Among the experiments that have been disallowed is the theatrical staging of one of the radio plays.
Pan Pan Theatre, however, received a rare allowance to do just that. To achieve this allowance, they proposed a production concept as unique as the work of the great man himself. All That Fall is staged with nothing resembling a set, with no visible actors, and with no stage action.
The rocking chairs (with seat-cushions each emblazoned with a skull) on which the audience sits and some lighting instruments (a few score of heavy-duty theatrical lights against one wall; a few score of household light bulbs hanging from the ceiling) are the environment of the play.
The audience hears the text as if listening to the radio, that sense enhanced because the actors speak into microphones. However, because we are an audience gathered together in a communal space to experience the piece together — and because the lighting effects enhance the text — the experience is a thoroughly theatrical one.
And the text is glorious. One of the wonderful things about Beckett is that he could continually mine veins which are thematically similar while continually yielding fresh insight into the human condition, scathingly funny examples of how we cope — or don’t cope — with the inevitable disappointment, decay, and death that define existence; and how our minds and memories at once soothe and torture.
The story is simple. For roughly the first half of the hour and twelve minute length of the piece (the company is unusually precise about that), Mrs. Rooney is making the arduous journey to meet her blind husband’s train as he is returning from work. The second half is the couple’s trip home. (The Rooneys bring to mind other Beckettian couples, such as Nagg and Nell in Endgame; Winnie and Willie in Happy Days.)
The play’s theme is the Sisyphean struggles necessary to get through a typical day. Characters exchange pleasantries and ask after the less fortunate; the replies are sometimes, “No better,” sometimes “No worse.” The fresh tweak to familiar ground is that Beckett wittily and playfully here contemplates that the only thing worse than the soul-crushing repetition of arduous routine is its disruption.
What is so terrific about this evening is that it stakes a theatrical claim to a beautiful text previously unavailable as theatre, adding a substantially sized one-act (roughly the size of his classic Krapp’s Last Tape) and reminding us that, with a talent like Beckett, the lesser-known work can be as satisfying as the acknowledged masterpieces. But also it provides theatre audiences a sui generis experience that challenges expectations and tests boundaries.
All That Fall
closes May 21, 2016
Details and tickets
Beckett’s later (and shorter) plays became starker and simpler, eliminating or accentuating elements in a manner that mirrors the deterioration of his characters, with their diminished capacities and fewer senses. (The blind Mr. Rooney calls to mind Godot’s Pozzo.)
The opening sound-scape (the Sound Design is by Jimmy Eadie) is familiar Beckett terrain: footsteps, tortured breathing. The sounds of animals remind us that man is the animal who has an awareness of eventual diminishment and death with which he must cope, which preoccupies our author, and which gives his audience the sort of profoundly satisfying and elemental, existential experience that one associates with the greatest literature.
Gavin Quinn is the visionary Director of the piece. His chief Designer is Aedín Cosgrove, who fashioned the environment and the lighting design, which constantly challenges our perceptions, our sense of how and what we see and hear.
When Pan Pan Theatre first presented this work (and later brought it to New York City), the couple was played by the celebrated actors Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon; here, Áine Ní Mhuirí and Andrew Bennett lead a cast of ten, who all bring nuance and clarity to the text.
As both Mr. Rooney’s description of his train trip and the ending of the couple’s day become metaphors for life, the text is replete with wonderful lines that strike you with their wit and insight into the human condition and compassion for the characters and underscoring of the work’s themes. I could quote many, but will leave you to discover them yourself, should you be lucky enough to catch Pan Pan’s brief stay in town.
But to give a small taste, I will close with Mrs. Rooney’s exclamation after a particularly grueling minor ordeal, as she gripes, “Christ! What a planet!”
All That Fall by Samuel Beckett. Directed by Gavin Quinn. Featuring Áine Ní Mhuirí, Phelim Drew, Daniel Reardon, David Pearse, Robbie O’Connor, John Kavanagh, Judith Roddy, Nell Klemen?i?, Andrew Bennett, Joey O’Sullivan. Designer: Aedín Cosgrove. Sound Design: Jimmy Eadie. Dramaturg: Thomas Conway. Production Manager: Rob Usher. Produced by Pan Pan Theatre. Presented by The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Reviewed by Christopher Henley.