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Making the leap from radio to stage, Beckett’s “All That Fall” is a delight

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Michael Gambon and Eileen Atkins and Mr. and Mrs. Rooney in Samuel Beckett’s All That Fall. 


All That Fall
By Samuel Beckett
59E59 Theaters, New York

Five minutes into the production of Samuel Beckett’s All That Fall now playing at 59East59 Theaters in New York, I realized with some exhilaration that I was watching one of the greatest Irish plays I have ever seen.

But All That Fall was never supposed to be seen. Beckett wrote the play for radio in 1956.
It was the celebrated British director Trevor Nunn who had the inspired idea of staging it, referencing its radio origins with actors carrying scripts onstage and speaking below overhead microphones.

The play opens with a signature of rural Ireland, the sound of barnyard animals braying and clucking.  Onstage Eileen Atkins appears as Maddy Rooney, a frail septuagenarian in a broad brimmed hat, came to meet her blind husband Dan (Michael Gambon) at the railway station.

A characteristic Beckett creation, Mrs. Rooney is a pincushion of ailments and angst whose halting progress is further hampered by the series of Irish eccentrics she meets along her way.

As painfully self-aware as the incomparable Dubliner who created her, Mrs. Rooney refers to herself at one point as “a hysterical old hag” and later notes, “I estrange them all.”

But in Beckett’s script and in Atkins’ hands, this painful self-awareness manages to be both sobering and hysterically funny.  The Irish are famous for their gallows humor, and Beckett’s is inarguably the most precise and brilliant example of the art form that the nation ever produced.

Not much actually happens in All That Fall. Mrs. Rooney has some brief discussions with the people she meets, she accepts a lift without offering thanks, she complains at length of her growing infirmities, and at last she arrives late to the station for the train that also arrives late.

But it’s on the road home that the darkness which haunts the edges of this brutally funny play falls, startling us with it its mystery and dread.

There isn’t much that separates us from the antics of the barnyard, bar the passing of time and a growing sense of futility. That could be funny or that could be terrifying, depending on how you look at it, and Beckett looks at  it both ways with his lighthouse glare. The braying and clucking animals are us, it turns out.

Onstage actor Billy Carter, most recently seen in The Weir by Conor McPherson at the Irish Rep, plays Tommy, one of Mrs. Rooney’s tormentors.

“This has been a big year for me,” he tells the Irish Voice. “I moved over and got my green card this year. I arrived here in March and met Ciaran O’Reilly and then The Weir happened. I thought it would only last for a month but it ended up going for four or five months. Then just before The Weir ended I got this.”

Carter says he has always been shy of Beckett, but when the part came up he jumped at the chance.

“When I got the offer to come over they told me I couldn’t learn my lines. It was a hot ticket in London,” he says.

“To have Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon onstage together, the pairing of those two was just so rich. The Beckett estate is so rigorous about what goes on, so the fact that Trevor Nunn convinced them to allow us to make All That Fall a performance, even though we’re holding scripts onstage and though we perform it in a sound studio set, it really fits with that Irish setting.”

In New York the audiences have really taken to the production and the reviews have been terrific. For an actor from Ireland it’s the best kind of exposure.

“You’ll never see this production again. To hear it live and see it like this is a one off. It’s so rich in terms of story telling,” Carter says.

Toward the end of the play Beckett undercuts the brittle humor and eloquence with a dramatic development that takes the breath out of the viewer.

Gambon and Atkins joltingly remind us that the suffering Beckett is speaking of is not only abstract but concrete. You can laugh or you can cry, but you can’t hope to outrun it. As the light ebbs so too does the hope that we’ll remain untouched.

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