|Michael Gambon and Eileen Atkins in ALL THAT FALL AT 59E59 Theaters|
All That Fall is quintessential Beckett, a chronicle of birth and death, sex and sickness, childlessness and old age, loss, grief, despair, the meaninglessness of life and yet, through it all, an hilarious recognition of the need to go on. It is an existential inquiry, a murder mystery, a tragicomedy, all at one and the same time, but most important of all, it is wonderful theatre.
Set in rural Ireland, the play focuses upon the bitter, septuagenarian, rheumatic and overweight Maddy Rooney (Eileen Atkins) as she struggles to make her way to the train station to meet her blind husband, Dan Rooney (Michael Gambon) upon his return from work. Her intent is to surprise him on his birthday. But before arriving at the train station, she encounters Christy (Ruairi Conaghan) with his dung cart; Mr. Tyler (Frank Grimes), a retired bill-broker on his bicycle; and Mr. Slocum (Trevor Cooper), a racecourse clerk and “old admirer” in his limousine. It is no coincidence that with each meeting the transportation technology advances – from cart to bicycle to automobile – nor that each means of transportation is beset with its own problems, foreshadowing a climactic crisis when Dan’s train is late. (Christy’s hinny refuses to pull the cart and must be whipped; Mr. Tyler’s bicycle tire goes flat; and the engine in Mr. Slocum’s car dies (as does the hen he accidentally runs over in the road).
Once Maddy arrives at the train station, the plot thickens. As it turns out, Dan’s train was late because of a horrible accident along the way: a child fell to the tracks and died under the train’s wheels. But why is Dan so reluctant to tell Maddy about it? Was he involved? When he later comments, as he and Maddy wend their way home, albeit in a seemingly totally different context, “Did you ever wish to kill a child?” and admits to having resisted just such impulses himself in the past, what is he really saying? And when we recall his comment to the effect that when he was alone in his train compartment “I made no attempt to restrain myself” – what does it all mean?
Originally commissioned by the BBC as a one act radio play, All That Fall was first broadcast in 1957. Beckett vehemently opposed its being transferred to a medium other than radio, denying requests to stage the play from both Ingmar Bergmann and Sir Laurence Olivier (although he did authorize a French TV version in 1963 and a German stage production in 1966). Since Beckett’s death, his estate has followed Beckett’s wishes, generally granting permission only for radio productions or staged readings in which producers agree to limit actors to speaking their lines and simply walking to and from their chairs.
That is what the estate did in authorizing the Richard Darbourne Ltd-Jermyn Street Theatre-Gene David Kirk stage adaptation of All That Fall in 2012. Directed by Trevor Nunn and starring Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon, the play was first presented last year at the Jermyn Street Theatre in London in the form of a live radio play with the actors holding scripts and with few props and a minimalist set. It then moved to The Arts Theatre in London’s West End where it was performed in the same fashion before arriving at 59E59 Theaters this month where it is being presented in a similar manner.
Despite the restrictions imposed by Beckett’s estate, this is one terrific production. Even within the confines of the conditions imposed upon him, Trevor Nunn has done an extraordinary job in coordinating Beckett’s detailed sound effects with minimal movements by the play’s actors in order to achieve an outstanding production. In so doing, he also has elicited fine performances from each and every one of his actors but most especially from Eileen Atkins. Hers is a truly remarkable talent and she displays it in this production for all its worth.
Not until very near the end of the play do we learn the significance of the play’s title when Dan asks Maddy what the text of the coming Sunday’s sermon is to be. Maddy responds that it is “The Lord upholdeth all that fall and raiseth up all those that be bowed down” – at which point they both burst out laughing. But what is so funny? It might, of course, simply be bemusement over the fact that God hadn’t done much to raise Maddy up, given her bent posture. More likely, though, it runs much deeper than that, alluding not only to the child who fell from the train but also to Minnie, the child that Maddy herself lost years ago; to Mr.Tyler’s unborn grandchildren given his daughter’s recent hysterectomy; and to all other children who may have died unborn or prematurely. Maddy and Dan appear to be laughing at the notion that God cares about “all who fall” or, indeed, at the very idea that God even exists at all.