Samuel Beckett latterly withheld stage rights to his 1956 radio play “All That Fall,” a decision upheld by the notoriously rigorous Beckett estate. Enter Trevor Nunn, who persuaded them otherwise with a production that upholds the playwright’s intention, since it’s staged with actors holding scripts as if performing a radio broadcast. Despite the baleful eloquence of Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon in the lead roles, the disappointing, hybrid result is neither quite radio nor theater.
A journey to the local train station and back by elderly and overweight Mrs. Rooney (Atkins), the arc of the play is simple. She’s going to collect her blind husband Dan (Gambon) on his birthday and, along the way, she struggles in and out of variously ramshackle bits of transport helpfully provided by locals. On their walk back after she’s collected him we discover that Dan has just suffered an altogether more traumatic experience with transport because of an event that occurred on the train.
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That something is, as it were, being lost in the translation from hearing to seeing is immediately apparent via the sound effects. This is no fault of the sound designer Paul Groothuis who, following Beckett’s instructions, supplies a neatly evocative succession of sound cues of animals and sundry other noises. But while hearing, say, the sudden mooing of a cow in a radio play completes the aural picture, the effect here seems more comic than atmospheric since it relates to nothing visually.
Things are problematic stylistically, too, as Nunn appears to be endorsing two opposed approaches to the material. Supporting actors step forward to speak as to radio microphones, with their characters’ activities conjured solely by their words. But Mrs. Rooney is presented much more literally, with Atkins moving very slowly from one side of the black-box set to the other.
Furthermore, so as to (over)illustrate her difficulty getting in and out of the cart to go to the station, Nunn has the distractingly thin Atkins struggling to push herself into a piece of set with door and seat. This amounts to a case of show and tell, but theater works far more strongly upon an audience when it’s one or the other, not both.
Lightly touching in the lyrical poetry of the writing, Atkins brings a beautifully wry edge to tired, wistful Mrs. Rooney, and Gambon, who can leap from silence to full-blown rage in a heartbeat, is as emotionally volatile as Beckett could have wished. Their star quality sold out a monthlong run at the 69-seat Jermyn Street Theater, which fuelled this transfer to the 350-seat off-West End Arts Theater.
Beckett understood and revolutionized dramatic form more than any other playwright of the 20th century. The sincerity of this production notwithstanding, it’s hard not to find yourself agreeing with his proposition that this gentle writing works best via the more concentrated imaginative power supplied by radio.