Samuel Beckett is well-known for his very exact set and stage directions. This article about Lisa Dwan’s experience performing Not I at the Royal Court earlier this year, shows how meticulous his stage directions are. Pan Pan are a theatre company who are known for re-interpreting classic texts and making you see them in a new light. The Rehearsal, Playing the Dane, their re-imagined Hamlet included a Great Dane and three actors auditioning for the role of Hamlet, with the audience making the final decision. Their production of A Doll House last year included a Batman costume and a game of Hide & Seek between Nora and her maid. It is surprising then to see that they have chosen to do a Beckett play where re-interpretation is surely off the cards due to strict rules regarding how it is performed. Then the ingeniousness that I have come to expect and enjoy in Pan Pan productions becomes clear – All That Fall is a radio play, so those strict stage directions don’t exist and the company are free to decide how you experience this play.
And as theatrical experiences go, All That Fall is a special one. It is unlike anything I’ve “seen” in the theatre before. Firstly, the idea of going to the theatre to listen to a radio play can be hard to get your head around. It feels like a slightly absurd thing to do and there is a certain anticipation in the foyer beforehand; we are all unsure what to except. When the audience is finally admitted to the theatre, we go into a large room, full of identical wooden rocking chairs. On the seat of each chair is a cushion with a skull on the cushion cover. At the front of the room where the stage should be, is a tall bank of lights. There seems to be hundreds of bare light bulbs above us, glowing dimly in the darkened room. The audience settle into the comfortable rocking chairs, looking around nervously, unsure how or when the play will start.
The play is a sort of “day in the life” and the first half is concerned with a wife’s trip to the train station to meet her husband. She finds the journey a terrible ordeal and her experience is filled with fear and anxiety. We hear her inner monologue as she makes her way along the country roads towards the train station. When she gets there and discovers that the train hasn’t arrived, her worry and confusion increase. It’s a sad story, brought beautifully to life by Áine Ní Mhuirí and Andrew Bennett. The light-bulbs dangling overhead are pretty and other worldly while the lights at the front can be suddenly blinding and completely over-whelming. The lighting and the strange sounds that fill the auditorium are assaults to the senses, separate to the script but complimentary to it. The script itself is engaging and sad but there are jokes and clever word-plays in it too. There are also wonderful images in the text which you are free to focus on because you don’t have a stage full of actors to distract you.
There is something soothing about this piece of theatre. Perhaps it is the rocking chairs or the pretty lights or the disembodied voices. It’s like being a small child again, listening to a story being read to you before bed. It’s also rejuvenating. Unlike most theatre experiences, where you are part of the crowd that makes up an “audience”, sitting in a long rows of seats all facing the same direction, here you are in your own rocking chair, separate from everybody else. It is a more personal experience and that’s part of what makes it so special. At the end of the play, when the lights come up, it’s almost a surprise to find yourself back in the room surrounded by other people.
I enjoyed it very much and I’m really looking forward to Embers, another Beckett radio play performed by Ní Mhuirí and Bennett, which is on in the Samuel Beckett Theatre from the beginning of August. (Tickets available here.) And if you are in Edinburgh during the festival, you can catch Embers on the 24th and 25th August and All That Fall on the 25th and 26th. More details here.