There aren’t that many ways to do a radio play for the stage, especially when that play belongs to the famously controlling estate of Samuel Beckett. But if the idea of stage actors pretending they are radio actors reading a play from scripts in a recording studio sounds impossibly mechanical, on the contrary, the production of All That Fall that comes to 59E59 from London is a quiet tour de force.
Not only does director Trevor Nunn offer a pitch-perfect “reading” of Beckett’s play, he also makes us an engagingly instructive lesson on semantics in language both verbal and visual, demonstrating, on the one hand, the power of words and sound alone, while on the other, exploring the nuances of these through the expressive presence of the ten-strong cast. The production also provides a chance to see Albus Dumbledore – er, Michael Gambon – in the flesh, who brings his gravelly native Irish inflections and mountainous stature to the blustering and blind Dan Rooney.
Gambon is only a fraction of the impeccable ensemble that deserves recognition to a man, and one lady in particular: the exquisite Eileen Atkins in the show’s lead. Her frail yet fighting Mrs. Rooney proves to be just the right salt-of-the-earth spokeswoman for Beckett’s gallows humor and absurdist willing to the sublime. As she makes her laborious trek to the train station to surprise her “master” coming home from work on his birthday, she is accompanied intermittently by a trio of fellow wayfarers: Christy (Ruairi Conaghan) on his dung cart, Mr. Tyler (Frank Grimes) on his bicycle and Mr. Slocum (Trevor Cooper) in his lorry. As brief as their roles are, every one of these excellent supporting actors lends a new visual field to the sun-dappled Irish landscape that starts to unfurl before our eyes.
Because while the overarching conceit of the radio play obliges the cast to periodically refer to the wrinkled, highlighted pages of text in their hands, these gestures soon become almost ironic flourishes, as the “stage” eventually takes over. Cherry Truluck’s set provides the requisite nondescript studio with its constellation of suspended microphones but it is also anchored by a stray shard of Mr. Slocum’s lorry cab, into which Mrs Rooney is burlesquely hoisted and as gently extracted. That may be the typical kind of prop that lends some context to what radio actors do, but there’s no denying that, as audio plays go, great care is paid to visuals here, from costumes (plenty of woolly jumpers, caps and tweed), to Trevor Nunn’s subtly dosed direction and use of space which is like a window opening from the grey walls of the recording booth onto a vast swath of fields behind. There is Mrs. Rooney’s home (stage left), there the train station (stage right), and in between the road (stage center) and its lorry and the country all around.
Mrs. Rooney eventually arrives to meet her husband, but her efforts are rewarded with the news that the 12:30 train is late. Nothing comes easy in Beckett, and the situation gradually worsens: the spring day gives way to a violent storm, a birthday is greeted with a terrible accident and old scars, we learn, are as fresh as the day they were made. The play’s title is from Psalm 145 – “The Lord upholdeth all that fall, and raiseth up all those that be bowed down” – which is a source of great hilarity for the bent and limping Rooney’s as they trudge home moments before the cloudburst. If suffering awaits all who cross Beckett’s landscape, Trevor Nunn and his supremely evocative cast remind us that, even in Beckett, or perhaps especially so, laughter is the best medicine all along the road of life.