A room full of rocking chairs, a wall of lights searing like the headlamps on the road that Mrs Rooney tramps along towards the train station, orange bulbs hanging from the rafters like fluorescent rain caught mid-fall: welcome to the listening chamber.
Renowned for their radical reinterpretations of theatrical sacred cows from Sophocles to Shakespeare, Pan Pan Theatre are perhaps the last Irish company one would expect to foster Beckett as a subject fit for generic experimentation. Beckett himself was concerned at the drift of genre in his day, opposing stage adaptations of his radio plays on the grounds that ‘if we can’t keep our genres more or less distinct, or extricate them from the confusion that has them where they are, then we may as well go home and lie down.’ But, in an age where radio is fast being subsumed by the internet, and is generally only listened to while driving or doing the dishes (if at all), director Gavin Quinn and designer Aedin Cosgrove have created a new multi-sensory way of experiencing the radio play, one which retains all the dramatic force of the original, yet redirects its audiences’ attention to the text through the external play of light and sound.
Admittedly, the concept isn’t entirely flawless: listening to the audio track in a dark room, I find myself closing my eyes in order to focus more fully on the sound drifting out of the darkness from a speaker upstage left, with the result that I miss some of the more subtle interchanges of light in front of me and overhead. Conversely, however, there are moments, such as when the wind which distracts Mrs Rooney from her husband’s diatribe roars through the speakers, the headlights on the downstage wall rushing up to meet the sound at full brightness, their heat tangible on my face on the front row, when light and sound appear to have become one, creating a curious state of synaesthesia in which the audience can almost see the wind, hear the expression etched on Maddy Rooney’s distracted face.
This is an illusion of course, but a highly effective one. After all, the effect is as much down to the power of the voices at play as it is to the display of light on show. Áine Ní Mhuirí’s invisible performance from the realms of the recording studio is nothing short of incandescent, her Mrs Rooney lilting from self-deprecating old hag, to local buxom flirt, to affectionately needy wife; while Andrew Bennett manages to catch not only Dan Rooney’s wry cynicism, but beneath it the undertow of tender sympathy coupled with his denial of the child’s death on the tracks out of a desire to protect his wife.
The pair are as mutually dependent on each other as they are on the host of characters they encounter on their individual journeys, and there are strong vocal performances across the board, each well-versed in bringing the ambiguity and innuendo of Beckett’s text to life. There is some wonderfully witty experimentation with the scene in which Mr Slocum hoists Mrs Rooney into his car which dredges up some of that gloriously Beckettian bawdiness; David Pearse’s Slocum unsure of where to put his shoulder as Mrs Rooney’s gasps and sighs rise to a climax.
If the initial concept behind this production begs the question of why we should go to the theatre to listen to the radio, then Pan Pan Theatre’s All That Fall answers this in spades. This is radio for the live art generation, simultaneously aurally rich and sparse, a multi-sensory experience that transports its audience beyond the armchair and into the living space of the text. Ideally, the rocking chairs themselves could be a bit more comfortable, but this is small fry compared to the achievement of Quinn, Cosgrove and company.