This review was originally written for A Younger Theatre
Somewhat unexpectedly, Michael Billington did not opt for Samuel Beckett’s game-changing Waiting For Godot, or even Endgame or Happy Days, when selecting his 101 Greatest Plays. Instead, he chose All That Fall, a radio play Beckett wrote in 1956 at the behest of the BBC, and which aired in January of the next year. It has, unlike the ubiquitous Godot, been performed only a handful of times since, due to Beckett (and later, Beckett’s estate) being famously reticent to allow even a hint of visualisation of a work that was, in his own words, “for voices, not bodies”.
Out of Joint’s production then, which has begun a run at Wilton’s Music Hall after premiering at the 2015 International Beckett Festival, is a rare chance to witness (aurally, if not visually) Beckett’s play performed live. One sits, blindfolded, in an auditorium crammed full of chairs, throughout which the cast slowly migrate over the course of an hour, the story unfolding through dialogue and sound effects alone. This is all you need though, as artistic director Max Stafford-Clark has crafted a rich, textured and charming soundscape of a rural County Dublin village in the early twentieth century.
There is a plot to this Beckett play, but it is starkly simple. The elderly, antagonistic Mrs Rooney (Bríd Brennan) travels along a country road to the local train station, where she meets her blind husband (Gary Lilburn) coming home from work. Along the way, she encounters a raft of village characters, including the dung-seller (Frank Laverty), the racecourse clerk (Ciaran McIntyre) and the station-master (Laverty again), each with their own authentic idiosyncrasies. It is a stirring portrait of an Ireland long vanished, but underneath this nostalgia bubbles a typically Beckettian nihilism, masked at first by unfussed realism but undeniably present in a deafeningly symbolic conclusion.
Stafford-Clark and his cast create a thoroughly real aural landscape. The ringing of a bicycle bell, the chuff-chuff of a steam train and the roar of a passing motor-car are all that one needs to paint a vivid picture of Beckett’s rural setting. The talented cast imbue their characters with individuality and personality, led by Brennan, who conjures up a cantankerous, impatient Mrs Rooney with wonderful vocal expression.
Throughout, with scarcely a hint of contrivance, Beckett’s philosophies are given voice through these characters. Brennan’s irritable Mrs Rooney, bereft of child, barely tolerated by her neighbours, with no-one but her gruff husband to truly lean on, becomes emblematic of our crushing inability to communicate truthfully. So many of her thoughts are left unexplored, so much of her remains undiscovered. Why does she crave attention, then abuse those that give her some? Why does she seek out news of death and illness so gleefully? What happened that made her this way?
This is the true appeal of All That Fall. On one level, its deceptively simple plot holds back a torrent of curiosity – a million questions left unanswered that intrigue as much as they frustrate. On another, however, its refusal to explicate events fully and its reliance on images of infertility and decay render this curiosity meaningless, unimportant in the face of sheer human suffering. Billington championed the play because in it, it is possible to find “great Beckett themes given flesh and colour”. As general realist drama goes, All That Fall is still unapologetically inaccessible, but as a rough-hewn path into the work and nihilistic philosophy of one of the great playwrights of the twentieth century, it is unparalleled.