When I was younger, a lot younger, I claimed to love Samuel Beckett, Christopher Isherwood and William Burroughs in equal measure. I have distant memories of eulogising Billie Whitelaw at length after witnessing her in a Beckett trilogy, at Riverside Studios if I recall correctly. Anyhoo life got in the way and I’d long ago put Beckett in a drawer at the back of my mind marked teenage affectation once I discovered the intoxicating delights of musical theatre. Then lo and behold theatrical behemoths Dame Eileen Atkins and Sir Michael Gambon together with director Sir Trevor Nunn take it upon themselves to resurrect Beckett’s 1956 one act radio play at the miniscule Jermyn Street theatre. I like to think of myself as quick off the mark, but tickets to that original run eluded me, so I was delighted when a few weeks at the slightly larger Arts theatre was announced.
Staged, at the insistence of the Beckett estate, as a radio play, the piece is basically a showcase for Atkins' considerable talents as her grumpy old woman Mrs Rooney makes her way along a country lane to collect her blind husband, Gambon, from the train station. With Beckett's scripted sound effects making Mrs Rooney's every footstep sound like nails down a blackboard, it is clear this is not going to be a barrel of laughs. Along the way Mrs Rooney encounters numerous neighbours and despondency falls over her as snippets of her life are aired and we hear of a daughter that would have been 50 if she had not died in childhood. Atkins does miraculously manage to wring chuckles from some of the most seemingly innocuous of lines, which amazed me and got me wondering about the abilities of the playwright versus those of the actor and who is serving who the best. When she eventually collects her husband, whose train has been delayed, a dark pall falls over the proceedings as his mood blackens and he wonders if he might not be happier if he lost his senses of hearing and speech too.
It really is something special to see these two theatrical greats at work, but with their input removed the piece feels simply bleak and inconsequential. A great dark cloud of hopelessness touching on infanticide and with a few giggles mercifully tossed in for well needed levity. I’m simply not bright enough to appreciate what I assume must be a myriad of subtexts. I also kept thinking of the superb one performance only staging of Joe Orton's The Ruffian On The Stair at the Criterion earlier in the year, which had the same air of suspense but managed to keep my interest throughout.
Much as the play was wasted on me, at least I got the opportunity to see it with two masters of their craft in the lead roles and it is at times like these that I feel blessed to live in London. When I started this blog, I really had had enough of the smoke and was seriously considering moving away. What the hell was I thinking?
The Emperors are wearing Beckett this season, but I've put him back in the drawer for another 20 years.