— Adam Henderson and Lee Van Paassen. Photo credit: Tim Matheson
ALL THAT FALL
There’s a certain consistency that you get from a Beckett play. Life is tragicomic, a bad joke, painful but funny. Time ticks away, chipping at the weak flesh that’s barely willing, leaving memories to be lamented, or savoured like an open sore. Characters curse their fate, insist on their dignity, try to make the best of a bad deal. “Nothing to be done,” says Estragon in the opening line of Waiting for Godot. But something is somehow always done. It can’t be helped.
Beckett wrote All That Fall in 1956, between Waiting for Godot and Endgame. He wrote it for radio, and until recently the Beckett estate has refused all requests to put it on stage. Now they have released it but require that it be staged as a radio play. Duncan Fraser’s stark, funny Blackbird Theatre production, the Canadian professional premiere, makes the most of the challenge with a series of beautifully crafted performances.
Downstage is a line of microphones and music stands where the actors read from scripts; upstage are chairs, additional mikes where the actors create sound effects, and material on the stage floor where feet can make the sounds of walking, wagon wheels, horses’ hooves, etc. Overlooking it all is a projection of Samuel Beckett’s craggy, world-weary face.
The story is characteristically minimalist. Lee Van Paassen, in a performance of great vocal texture and richness, plays Mrs. Maddy Rooney, getting on in years. On a Saturday, she makes her way along a rural Irish road to the railway station where she is to meet her blind husband Dan (William Samples at his dyspeptic best) as he returns from work on the 12:30 train. Mrs. Rooney chats with a variety of local characters along the way, the train is mysteriously late, it finally arrives, and she and Dan walk towards home until the reason for the train’s delay is revealed (rather dramatically, for Beckett).
Mrs. Rooney’s journey is filled with delicious Beckettian moments. There’s a long, funny segment where Mr. Slocum (Adam Henderson) offers her a ride in his car, into which he must hoist her, then pry her out with the help of Tommy the porter (Gerard Plunkett), with great difficulty to all three. But I prefer Beckett’s verbal wit, as when Christie (Samples again) offers to sell her some dung from his wagon. “What would we want with dung,” asks Mrs. Rooney, “at our time of life?” Or when she attempts to engage Dan in conversation on the way home, and he objects: “Do not ask me to speak and move at the same time.”
Other vivid characters appear, including the barrel-voiced stationmaster Mr. Barrell (Henderson) and the religiously correct Miss Fitt (Leanne Brodie). Birds sing, cows moo, sheep baa, horses whinny—all vocalized by the actors.
But much of the drama takes place in Mrs. Rooney’s head, indicated by an echoey shift in the quality of the sound, as she thinks with bitterness about what appears to be her long-deceased only child, Minnie, who, she imagines, if she had lived, would just about be “getting ready for the change.” Most everything bounces off Mrs. Rooney, but every so often we get a sense of her deep-seated despair, as when she thinks, “How can I go on? I cannot.” But of course she does.
At one point on the walk home Maddy mentions the text of tomorrow’s sermon at church: “The Lord upholdeth all that fall and raiseth up all those that be bowed down.” There’s a beat, then she and Dan laugh uproariously. That’s Beckett in a nutshell.