Michael Gambon and Eileen Atkins in All That Fall photo: Polly Hancock
Published: 18 October, 2012
by TOM FOOT
It is often said you can judge how deeply a play has penetrated by whether you wake up thinking about it the next day.
The first ever performance of Samuel Beckett’s All That Fall has been stuck in my head all week – and it shows no signs of budging.
I do not think I will ever see a performance to match Eileen Atkins as Mrs Rooney, a character with a kind of arresting melancholy to make the sky larks weep.
Hers is a shudderingly oppressive sorrow that pummels you into oblivion but drags you back out of the abyss with her interest in nature – the Venus birds! – and love for her irascible husband (Michael Gambon).
Up close and personal in the intimate fringe venue, the audience could see every eyelid-flicker and sneer of cold command from these two Olivier Award winners.
There was a special buzz of intrigue on Thursday night, too. The radio play had never been performed before, despite the best efforts of Laurence Olivier and Ingmar Bergman to secure it from the Beckett Estate. Director Trevor Nunn and the casting of Gambon made for one of those balmy evenings for the critics, so excited you thought they were ready to explode.
The plot sees Mrs Rooney travel to the train station to pick up Mr Rooney, meeting and moaning at various characters on the way.
Every step could be her last – “And to top it all,” she wails to Miss Fit, “I’m left-handed.” Laced with comedy, the story takes a dark turn at the train station where a hint of something truly terrible brings a bit of perspective to her woes.
Nunn secured the script on the promise it remains in its intended form, a radio play. It means the cast had no props and had to be seen to be reading from scripts. Gambon was slightly hamstrung by his role as the King Lear-like stick-groping blind man, who repeatedly has to break his sightlessness to snatch a peek at his notes. Let’s just say it was a little hard to suspend disbelief – but it added to the night’s strangeness, which included mischievous use of sound effects – a true Beckett flourish.
Gambon did have moments of brilliance, but perhaps the most interesting aspect of the night was watching him before he began acting, sitting in absolute awe of Atkins, a look of complete wonderment in his expression.
Serene, mysterious and brilliant – but sadly sold out. If it ever returns to the stage, I cannot recommend it enough.
Until November 3
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