The great Irish novelist-playwright-poet Samuel Beckett wrote ALL THAT FALL in 1956. It was his first radio play and the first play that had a woman as the focal character. Radio allowed a free movement in time and space not available to Beckett in the theatre. ALL THAT FALL is a more "realistic" work than one expects from Beckett. It depicts the long walk of 70-something Mrs. Rooney, a garrulous, cantankerous woman, to the railroad station to meet her blind husband and their walk home. On the way to the station, Mrs. Rooney encounters a number of local characters to whom she is not very pleasant. She softens as she talks to her husband on the way home. All nine characters are fully drawn, but Mrs. Rooney is particularly interesting, the first of those wonderful Beckett women who manage to turn the commonplace into a kind of poetry.
How do you turn a radio play depicting characters walking along muddy paths, into a stage play? Perhaps a film would be best, but we would lose the primacy of language. Everything would be too literal. Veteran director Trevor Nunn rightly decided to keep the conceit of a radio play. The actors enter, scripts in hand, and sit on chairs along the side throughout the play until it is time for their characters to speak. A red light goes on and the play begins. Yet within that framework, the actors, basically on a bare stage with minimal props other than a simple mock-up of a car, convince us that they are in that damp, rainy Irish countryside.
The greatest of many pleasures in this production is the magnificent Eileen Atkins as Mrs. Rooney. I have long admired the economy of Atkins's acting. She is one of those great actors who draw her audience to her rather than play to her audience. One can't take one's eyes off of her. Atkins beautifully captures this frail but tough old lady and her special relationship with her husband, played by the masterful Michael Gambon. They have their private jokes and their long-practised means of comforting each other. The world is a somewhat less fearful place when they are together. The other actors, playing the men and women Mrs. Rooney encounters on her way to the station, are fine in their small roles, but the real joy here is in the glorious language and the acting of Atkins and Gambon.
ALL THAT FALL is only 75 minutes long, but it is a gem of a play. Like much of Beckett, it is bittersweet -- funny and also profoundly sad. The bleak Irish landscape becomes a more realistic version of the bare, lonely setting of WAITING FOR GODOT, another instance of Beckett's godless world, one in which the Rooneys laugh wildly and bitterly at the thought of a God who will raise up all that fall.
I wonder what Beckett would have thought of the fact that in 2013 his work is selling out in two New York theaters. Perhaps he speaks to us more than he spoke to audiences sixty years ago.
ALL THAT FALL by Samuel Beckett. 59E59 Theatres . November 27, 2013.