Tuesday, 13 January 2015

All That Fall is a gem of wordplay & anomie

The play's primary conceit : All That Fall was written as if "the whole thing's coming out of the dark" Irish playwright, novelist and poet Samuel Beckett pronounced at the time the BBC aired it as a radio play for the first time in 1957. Beckett never intended it to be blocked, choreographed, orchestrated or seen. Let it be but heard. Let its darkness descend from a radio speaker and creep into the listener's ear. It's about the words. Always the words. But words enhanced just a wee bit by some colloquial sound effects from horsey clip-clops to train whistles to snorts and farts and farmyard chicks.

Thus except for a French t.v. version and a German stage performance in the 60's he authorized -- both of which Beckett apparently loathed -- the script has been mothballed for 50 years. Until Beckett's estate approved it for staging three years back, but staging only if its actors perform the script as if they were in a radio recording booth together.

A plot of sorts : ATF is essentially a day in the life of 70-something Maddy Rooney. She's creaked up her rheumatoid bones and failing kidneys to go greet her blind husband Dan. He's on the Saturday noon commuter train after his 1/2 day's office work in the city 30 minutes away. She wants to surprise him. It's his birthday. Turns out the train's late by a full 15 minutes. Dan is evasive as to just why. Seems petulant when asked. There's a hint of a mishap. Something untoward delayed his timely deliverance, no question. But this sketchy whodunit piece won't slot into the puzzle until play's end. (The script's weakest element, no question i.m.o.)

Along the way Maddy gives her fundamental scorn and disappointment at life a vigorous work-out. Cranky outhustles creaky every step of the way. An "hysterical old hag" she calls herself and sets out to prove it. Her encounters include a teamster hauling dung in a cart and a cyclist clanging his bell followed by a truck that nearly flattens her and finally a limousine car she squeezes into after snorts aplenty. Seems both she and the car are stuck with a bum starter. This bit of slapstick byplay is welcome relief no question.

Whom the gods would destroy... : Maddy's world is rife with irritations and jeremiads and petulant grievances that span the ages. Until the end when one gigantic guttural ironic laugh erupts, if briefly. That's when she and Dan, now shambling their way home in the wind and rain, review what a visiting priest's scheduled sermon for Sunday's service is slated to address. From Psalm 145:18 he'll speak about how "The Lord upholdeth all that fall and raiseth up all those that be bowed down," Maddy announces. 

At this the Rooneys, she the Mad one, he blind, erupt in spontaneous fits of laughter. Quite possibly it's the only real mirth they've shared in many moons since Little Minnie left them abruptly four decades or so back. (Whether Minnie ever truly lived in flesh or only in their shared phantasy we never finally find out.) But since her departure their union has been more akin to a later Beckett observation about many married couples : "Alone together, so much shared." 

[Aside : The Rooneys' ongoing ghostwalk through time and space put me instantly to mind of the wondrous Robert Penn Warren poem "Waiting"* that originally appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in 1978 and was included in his Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Now and Then published that same year.]

On the way home Dan weighs the pro's and con's of continuing to work as an office cipher pinching pennies with delight -vs- the impending drudgery of endless domestic chores that retirement will foist on him. Not to mention the irritating neighbourhood children. Indeed, at times Beckett's script seems a cross between the W. C. Fields dictum "Anyone who hates kids and dogs can't be all bad" and philosopher Thomas Hobbes' rueful observation that "Life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." 

But clearly Beckett's lines have the effect to amuse, too. Maddy's near bottomless self-pity wrings laughs galore out of the audience because that's one way to deal with one so apparently miserable as this. Existentially her cry of "Can't you see I'm in trouble? Have you no respect for misery?" is the stuff of Albert Camus, Eckhart Tolle, Ernest Becker and countless other thinkers over the years. But those lines drew hearty laughs from folks, too. "It is suicide to be abroad!" she moans. "But what is it to be at home, what is it to be at home? A lingering dissolution!" she wails to herself in response. More laughter!

Clever acting by all : Lee Van Paassen as Maddy is a painful joy to watch as she plays out her endless angst and anomie and wistful longing for her girlish sexier self. As Dan, William Samples wields a wizardly cane and a waspish worldview with equal zing and snap. Leanna Brodie steals the scene where she plays the Protestant spinster named Miss Fitt (ha-ha Mr. Beckett). For their parts, supporting cast Adam Henderson and Gerard Plunkett add delightful idiosyncratic turns as a bunch of other "characters" roaming that time and place in this squib of Irish history.

Production values : The soundscape of ATF is what helps make it unique and fun. The actors having to run stair steps, walk through gravel, make donkey and chicken and cow and wasp noises give the piece a special fun factor. Jeff Harrison's lighting was subtle and engaging and supported completely what Director Duncan Fraser intended. Fraser says in his Director's Note : "...this is a Beckett we have not seen before, it tells of his youth and his humour and his playfulness". No question about that in the least. He adds : "So close your eyes, we'll provide the audio, you provide the visuals, and paint your own play." The less I looked, the more I just listened and turned the words over in my head, the more vivid the paints became.

Who gonna like : So soon after Dylan Thomas : Return Journey, Samuel Beckett's All That Fall is a terrific segue for lovers of Irish wit, nuance, and sheer lilt of language. Whether one views Beckett's piece as a bit of comic absurdity in the vein of a Ionesco or more serious reflection on the agony of surviving in a God-less world, it would be difficult to exit the Cultch not having been roundly entertained. Sharp sharp performances by veterans who amuse and provoke in equal measure.

Particulars. Written by Samuel Beckett (1906-1989). Produced by Blackbird Theatre in association with The Cultch. At the Historic Theatre, Venables @ Victoria, until January 24. One act, 75 minutes, no intermission.  604.251.1363.

Production team. Producer Blackbird Theatre. Director Duncan Fraser. Set/Costume Designer Marti Wright. Sound Designers Chris Cutress and Scott Zechner. Lighting Designer Jeff Harrison. Stage Manager Joanne P.B. Smith. Production Manager Jayson McLean. 

Actors. Leanna Brodie. Adam Henderson. Gerard Plunkett. William Samples. Lee Van Paassen.



by Robert Penn Warren

You will have to wait. Until it. Until
The last owl hoot has quavered to a
Vibrant silence and you realize there is no breathing
Beside you, and dark curdles toward dawn.
Drouth breaks, too late to save the corn,
But not too late for flood, and the dog-fox, stranded
On a sudden islet, barks in hysteria in the alder-brake.
Until the doctor enters the waiting room, and
His expression betrays all, and you wish
He'd take his goddamn hand off your shoulder.
The woman you have lived with all the years
Says, without rancor, that life is the way life is, and she
Had never loved you, had believed the lie only for the sake of the children.
Until you become uncertain of French irregular verbs
And by a strange coincidence begin to take
Catholic instruction from Monsignor O'Malley, who chews a hangnail.
You realize, truly, that our
Savior died for us all,
And as tears gather in your eyes, you burst out laughing,
For the joke is certainly on Him, considering
What we are.
You pick the last alibi off, like a scab, and
Admire the inwardness, as beautiful as inflamed flesh
Or summer sunrise.
Until you
Remember, surprisingly, that common men have done good deeds.
Until it
Grows on you that, at least, God
Has allowed us the the grandeur of certain utterances.


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