FringeReview UK 2021
Directed by Richard Beecham, Set and Costume Design by Simon Kenny, Adrienne Quartly Sound Designer and Ben Ormerod Lighting Designer. Till November 20th when it transfers to Bath November 24th -December 4th December.
When Jermyn Street mounted Trevor Nunn’s Beckett triple bill in January 2020 it confirmed the theatre’s deep-delved intimacy as ideal, yoking a well-known classic Krapp’s Last Tape with tantalising slivers Eh Joe and The Old Tune. The overall effect’s a warm acoustic zero below street level.
Richard Beecham’s production of Footfalls from 1975 and 1980’s Rockaby offers two shorts often yoked together. They revel in the space’s suggestive regression as Simon Kenny’s two sets are etched side by side in Ben Ormerod’s lighting. For Footfalls there’s a raised platform with a lit edge: somewhere between a catwalk and walking the plank. Rockaby’s circumscribed with a light cube, inside which a rather modern armchair (not the stipulated polished wood with inward arms embracing) awaits Sian Phillips.
It’s an aestheticaly clinical decision and works throughout. Kenny ensures the almost de rigeur matte black informs sets and costumes; and though Ormerod’s lighting illumines Charlotte Emmerson more than Phillips, it’s still more liminal than the 2014 production of this pairing (along with Not I) at the Royal Court and West End, all parts memorably taken by Lisa Dwon.
The most striking addition is Adrienne Quartly’s wintry sound design wrapped round the opening of Footfalls, as Emmerson’s not very ‘prematurely aged’ May listens to her dying mother’s interrogative counting of nine steps and wheel, mixing solicitude with ritual. Referring to the mother as ‘Voice’ skews but doesn’t shroud the relationship. Everything Emmerson does is dramatically as well as fictionally syncopated by Voice. Emmerson ghosts up in a half-glance at best, keeps her responses keyed below Voice’s level.
For instance May would like her footfalls to be heard, to remove the carpet, but Voice says she’ll always hear her in the deepest sleep. This maternal play of exploitative regret and daughter’s learned lessness is the spine of this co-dependency: whether in calculating their respective ages (ninety, forties), where the pay-off’s ‘I had you late… Forgive me’ as if that ensures servitude, or Voice recalling how early May retreated from girlhood and lacrosse to stay indoors, where later on there’s a shift of identity in the long monologues, dominated by Phillips’ voice. Again Emmerson plays this as haunted undersinger against Voice’s amplified one.
The same almost applies when Phillips forms a palimpsest over herself in Rockaby, but never once do her relatively few words turn a decibel on her amped self. Phillips’ face is outlined in a light-dulled silver, a clear evocation of Beckett, or some of his later actors. Phillips achieves the near miraculous balance of sibylline detachment and anguished self-communing. As if the mother invoked comments on the daughter, and the daughter in turn reinvokes her from a place of present darkness.
It’s a litanic piece, running a river of short verse-lines with built-in pauses in contrast to Footfalls’ slabs of direction-aerated prose.
Here another ‘prematurely aged’ now solitary woman seeks the window to connect to something. Language in prayerful repeats evokes how ‘mother rocked/all the years/all in black/best black… till the end came’ and if you construct a temptingly simplistic narrative, his might be May. Against that is May’s ninety-year-old mother being bed-ridden, and of course these plays’ discrete entities. What is undeniable is Rockaby preludes 1981’s short novel Ill Seen Ill Said memorably delivered by the dying Patrick Magee on Radio 3 the following year.
Rockaby does though imply daughterly succession, a woman shrunk beyond her mother’s scope, with no child of her own and ‘famished eyes’, determined – in ‘time she went right down’ – to go earlier to her grave, invoking her mother’s own years before as a rite of passage: with one unexpected verbal kick just before the end.
Emmerson humanises May in her very skeined withdrawal, and Phillips, omnipresent in both pieces, terraces Voice and her other self against her own persistent, never insistent utterance. Dwon, one of our greatest Beckett actors, was fiercely impressive in all three pieces in 2014. Emmerson and Phillips though, make their parts indelible, and add to Beckett’s stock of pity, stoicism and a window on death. Outstanding.