Beckett’s ‘Archers’ rules the air waves: All That Fall at Jermyn Street Theatre
All That Fall at Jermyn Street Theatre, London. 1hr 10mins
Scenes From An Execution at Lyttelton, National Theatre, London. 2hrs 40mins
One of the tiniest venues in London has pulled off a great coup. Jermyn Street Theatre has got permission from the estate of Samuel Beckett to stage his 1956 play All That Fall, which he wrote specifically for radio, and has cast it with two of our finest actors, Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon.
Director Trevor Nunn has adhered to the estate’s rules that the production must look and sound like a radio play. It starts like an episode of The Archers with a cacophony of farmyard moos, baas and cockadoodle-doos. Fifties microphones hang from the roof and the characters hold their scripts in their hands and pretend to read them.
All That Fall by Samuel Beckett and directed by Trevor Nunn at the Jermyn Street Theatre. Michael Gambon as Mr Rooney and Eileen Atkins as Mrs Rooney
And funnily enough, this is an everyday tale of country folk – but in rural Ireland rather than Ambridge. As she makes her way to meet her blind husband, Dan (Michael Gambon), off the train, Maddy Rooney bumps into Christy, the local dung-carrier, as well as old Mr Tyler on his bicycle, and a former admirer, Mr Slocum.
‘How shall we do this?’ says Maddy (Eileen Atkins), wondering aloud how to heave herself (she is supposed to be elephantine) into Slocum’s ‘limousine’ and answering herself emphatically: ‘As if I were a bale.’
The Rooneys are a more naturalistic but still comic version of some of Beckett’s better-known carping couples – the dustbin dwellers Nagg and Nell in Endgame, the tramps Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting For Godot.
Maddy is a glorious creation. Vol-ubly eccentric, she claims to have had ‘a life-long preoccupation with horses’ buttocks’. She is grumpy, very sharp, and has never stopped grieving for Minnie, her child who died. ‘She would be girding up her lovely little loins for The Change,’ Maddy reflects mournfully while making us laugh.
If you like this, why not try:
Medea, with Rachael Stirling, at Watford Palace Theatre.
For the play is tightly woven with those familiar Beckett themes: death, ageing and time running out. As ever with Beckett, much of the pleasure comes from the language, which deliberately draws attention to itself. Maddy Rooney says early on that she uses it ‘bizarrely’.
Actually, she has a brilliant deadpan wit and a vivid eloquence. Stairs are a ‘cliff’; she says: ‘Just prop me up like a roll of tarpaulin.’ It’s a huge bonus to watch the magnificent Atkins and Gambon visibly savouring the words. But the big surprise – and delight – is the play’s twist into an intriguing murder-mystery.
There’s another unexpected pleasure to be found at the National Theatre. The playwright Howard Barker recently said: ‘Theatre should be a taxing experience. A good play puts the audience through a certain ordeal. I’m not interested in entertainment.
So it was with reluctance that I went to the revival of his Scenes From An Execution. I’m delighted to report that this is a very good play, full of muscular ideas, highly entertaining and certainly not an ordeal.
In Renaissance Venice, a renowned female artist, Galactia (Fiona Shaw), has been commissioned by the Doge (Tim McInnerny) to commemorate the battle of Lepanto, in which the Venetians triumphed over the Ottomans and 40,000 men died in four hours of carnage.
Fiona Shaw plays renowned female artist, Galactia in new play Scenes From An Execution
The progress of the painting is charted through the models Galactia uses, the descriptions by an art historian and the strong impression it makes on its viewers. But we never get to see it.
Tom Cairns’s remarkable, sensuous staging makes the production itself a work of art, and Hildegard Bechtler’s design transforms the Lyttelton stage, creating new levels and planes. Peter Mumford’s superb lighting ignites the vibrant, ravishing reds and sumptuous textures of the costumes, which in their style range freely from the 16th Century to contemporary, much like the language of the play.
Galactia is more than a mere character; she’s a force of nature, brought to bold, lusty life by Fiona Shaw at her very best. Her grubby artist’s smock reveals bare breasts.
She is a sensualist through and through, a woman who has a reputation for promiscuity and couldn’t care less what impression she creates, but cares passionately about the impact made by her work.
She wants the painting to expose the butchery of war: ‘Anyone who looks at it will feel he is there, and wince in case an arrow should fly out of the canvas and catch them in the eye . . . Someone has to speak for dead men.’ Needless to say, it’s not what the bigwigs want at all. Barker is exploring serious concerns in the piece: the purpose of public art, women as artists, censorship and patronage.
But there are also moments in which the play is silly just for the fun of it. Carpeta is the name of the lover Galactia walks all over; Supporta is her daughter; and there’s a soldier called Lasagna.
One character has a bolt stuck in his skull and his intestines on display through a flap of skin.
Barker may not have intended to entertain, but he does so cleverly and in a style that is all his own.
ALSO PLAYING: Pinstripes and plebs bring House down
COMMONS PEOPLE: Andrew Havill in This House
Entering an auditorium that has been transformed into a replica of the House of Commons, the audience find themselves sitting on green benches alongside MPs with Seventies-style sideburns, plentiful hair and flared trousers. This is James Graham’s accomplished new play, This House (Cottesloe, National Theatre, London) HHHH, a romp back to the parliamentary events of the Seventies.
Of course, the MPs are overwhelmingly men. When Ann Taylor enters the Labour whips’ office, her fellow Labour MP Walter Harrison assumes she is lost, then offers her a seat. ‘She’s a woman, Walter, not an invalid,’ says the Chief Whip, Bob Mellish.
An accident-prone Labour Government is protecting a tiny majority. Every vote counts: the Labour whips engage in frantic horse-dealing with minority parties, and drag MPs off their deathbeds, out of hospital, out of the pub and through the lobby.
The characters are rather caricatured, but to gloriously comic effect. The Tory whips are pinstriped whisky-drinking toffs – ‘aristotw*ts’ according to one Labour MP.
The Labour lot are beer-swilling, darts-playing plebs with regional accents and terrible brown suits. However, things are changing. A Labour man listens to opera, and a Tory watches Coronation Street.
The drama builds with mounting tension to the vote of no confidence in 1979 that would open the door of No 10 to Mrs Thatcher.
Jeremy Herrin’s excellent staging includes some lovely choreographed moments (reminiscent of another fact-based drama, Enron) when the MPs dance while a live band plays David Bowie’s Five Years and other blasts from the past.
Graham’s implicit suggestion is that what really matters most to politicians is staying in power. What they do with that power seems secondary.
The play is studded with sharp observations. A Tory whip describes the British system of government: ‘One party governs, and one party opposes. That’s our system. That’s this building. We’re not built for co-operation.’
When someone is told to ‘twist a few Liberal arms’, a Labour man says: ‘They’re flimsy and break easily.’
Beyond the whips, the rabble of MPs are represented by a chorus. Among the Tories, you’ll spot Alan Clark, who gets ticked off for having three cars in the Commons car park, Norman St John-Stevas flouncing in a too-tight double-breasted blazer, and Hezza with his big hair.
Hugely enjoyable, and acted with flair, it fully deserves a second term (in the Olivier) from February after this run finishes on December 1.