‘Just drifting on down to the higher life and remembering all the silly unhappiness as if it never happened.’
What a beautiful play this is. What exquisite theatre and sublime acting. And what a mighty relief that the Beckett estate have relinquished their grip and allowed Trevor Nunn to stage this radio play, All That Fall. It’s an absolute cracker. Theatre as you always hoped it might be – but rarely is. A delicate, quiet and fiery, gorgeously poetic reflection on the ebbs and flows of life, steeped in sadness but filfthy and funny too. And although this is a play steeped in death, it’s so goddam gorgeous it makes you happy to be alive.
One person less happy about life is Eileen Atkins’ wondrously miserable Mrs Rooney. Atkins’ face droops down in a permanent scowl; as if a life of ‘no thank yous’ and sadness has wiped the smile clean from her repertoire. The play opens with a cheerful chap offering her some manure, to which Mrs Rooney replies; ‘What type of dung?’ And this is Mrs Rooney’s life in a nutshell; a big steaming pile of shit that always stinks, only sometimes with a slighty different, rancid tang.
As Mrs Rooney slowly makes her way through the town – to meet her husband from the station – death teases her from a distance. A chicken is clucking one minute, only to be mowed down the next. The ditches smell of rotting leaves and decay. She dreams of being at home in bed, where she can lie down and – if she’s lucky – never get up again.
It all sounds horribly miserable – but that’s the thing about Beckett, he piles up the despair with such care and such a twinkle that rich humour always glistens between those packed layers of sadness. And, once we allow ourselves to laugh at Mrs Rooney we begin to laugh at life; at its riproaring arbitrariness and utter indifference to our own feeble attempts to give it a bash, to do it justice or, as we reach the end, to try to outrun it.
Very little happens here and yet Atkins finds such variety – bursts of humour and stabs of sadness – in her long walk to the station. She’s a virtuoso musician, alert to even a semi-tonal shift in the key of Beckett’s poetry. At one point, Mrs Rooney wistfully describes the landscape. It’s a fairly simple description but it’s indescribably moving; as if she is seeing ‘that sky’ and those trees for the very last time. It’s so honest and vulnerable that it feels like we’ve been lodged inside Mrs Rooney’s heart, its delicate walls beating around us.
All the actors are brilliant here, sliding off Atkins’ grumpiness with good humour and just a whiff of human compassion. But it is when Mrs Rooney finally meets with Mr Rooney (Michael Gambon) that the play really dazzles. This is two of our finest actors speaking the words of a playwright they instinctively understand. Gambon isn’t just a brilliant actor – he is a kindred spirit of Beckett’s. He is thoughtful and his voice is beautiful but he is dirty as hell and angry too. When Gambon speaks Beckett’s words it’s as if he’s speaking his mind.
Gambon also isn’t afraid to be despicable. Meeting his wife from her epic and lonely pilgrimage, sparks of hostility fly off him. He challenges us to hate him; ‘Do you ever think about killing a child?’. But tiny nuances in Beckett’s script and Gambon’s performance allow little glimmers of human kindness to rise, briefly, above all that hate and disappointment.
Gambon does not ask us for sympathy. However, tiny slips let us know that something horrible has happened to this couple; that they have lost a child a long time ago. An accident on this recent train journey has refreshed Mr Rooney’s grief but he is desperate to hide the truth from his wife, to stop that spark of grief from flaring up and burning right through her. When a little boy lets slip about the accident, Gambon’s howl splits us all in two. It is horrific; a life time of grief released in one roaring groan. But the wail soon subsides; as does all horror, if we just allow time to keep on passing. The two continue their slow journey home and, when Mrs Rooney asks Mr Rooney to put his arm around her, he does just that. It’s a tiny crumb of comfort but it is a moment of such simple, human kindness that I will never forget.