Sunday, January 19, 2014

All That Fall by Samuel Beckett. Pan Pan Theatre, Ireland

All That Fall by Samuel Beckett.  Pan Pan Theatre, Ireland, for Sydney Festival.  Directed by Gavin Quinn at Everest Theatre, Seymour Centre, University of Sydney, January 9-26, 2014.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 18

It was a sad night (but only for 70 minutes) because Beckett was determined to not allow Mr Rooney (Andrew Bennett) to tell Mrs Rooney (Áine Ní Mhuirí) what happened to delay his train home from his dingy little office; but finally she was told by the little boy Jerry (Joey O’Sullivan) what the station master Mr Barrell (John Kavanagh) had told him.  A young child had fallen onto the tracks and had “fallen under the wheels”, said Jerry.

This play, said Beckett, ironically perhaps, was written “for voices not bodies” and was originally broadcast on the BBC in 1957.  Nicholas Johnson, Assistant Professor of Drama at Trinity College, Dublin has written a mini-essay in the program notes entirely about the business of presenting a radio play on stage, but nothing about the content of the drama.  I found myself rather saddened on both points.

The play seems to me to belong to the British depressed culture of the 1950s, alongside John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger for example, made even worse by Beckett’s emphasis on his characters’ deep and constant anxiety about the inevitability of their deaths.  It’s a mental world of worthless post-war suburban life that hardly seems to fit in our world from the swinging sixties to today’s social media. 

Presenting the play seemed to me to be an exercise in museum theatre, despite the attempt to do something new with the audience, seated on rocking chairs among loudspeakers beneath a ceiling covered in dim incandescent globes and facing, more or less according to our inclination, a wall of par can lights laid out in a grid 12 vertical by 14 horizontal.  Different configurations were lit and unlit at points throughout the play: sometimes we were in complete darkness, listening to the voices.  Sometimes we were dimly or brightly lit – perhaps with the intention of making us take notice of each other, or for us to interpret the changing configuration.

Unfortunately, though I found some interest in noticing odd features of some other audience members, I could not see any particular relevance of the light show to what was happening in the play, except for once when religion was mentioned and the wall lights formed a cross.

The rocking chairs were problematic too.  I supposed, since Mr Rooney talked so much about retiring and having nothing to do but wait for the next meal, we were meant to experience these old people’s lives in our rocking chairs.  I did this so well that I fell asleep and missed several minutes, until the earth shaking sound of the train arriving at the station woke me up.

I had no concerns about the quality of the performances of the voices, but even as I was listening it occurred to me that I could not tell if the whole show had been pre-recorded (including the software for the lights) or whether I was hearing a live performance.  When the play was written, of course, it was common to broadcast live – from the Goon Show to Mrs Dale’s Diary (or Blue Hills in Australia) – but how could I know on this occasion?  The Goon Show had a live audience who could see the shenanigans going on around the microphones, and we could hear their reactions.  But on this occasion we had no actors to watch, only their voices to hear.  Perhaps the whole show was an Irish joke, with all those actors and technical designers down at the pub in Dublin except for a couple of roadies to rig and push the buttons at the Seymour Centre.

(Actually, as one audience member complained, the roadies seemed to have forgotten to connect all the surround-sound speakers tonight.  I agreed that all the sound was coming from one source behind my seat, and none from the other speakers I could see across the space in front of me.  The stage manager was made aware of the complaint – hopefully just a one-off technical problem.)

On the other hand, presenting this work in the university context and as part of the Festival of Sydney can be seen as a valid thing to do.  It provides an opportunity for students today to hear Beckett’s voice through a different medium than the inevitable Waiting for Godot.  Yet one aspect of Beckett’s work which was very well brought out in what some have called “The Sir Ian McKellen Production” was the richness of the humour.  I haven’t heard the original broadcast of All That Fall, but I heard plenty of points in this script which I think should have been played for laughs.

Then, rather than an essay about the nature of radio broadcasting and “Pan Pan’s faithfulness here to the sense of ‘occasion’ of early broadcast media”, we might have found ourselves engaged in the tragic contrast between the funny, inconsequential obsessions of our daily lives and the reality of sudden, random death.  This is what I think Beckett was on about.  But tonight the audience only laughed once, and the death, though sad, was a bit of a dramatic let-down.