The combination of Michael Gambon, Eileen Atkins, Trevor Nunn and Samuel Beckett hardly needs a marketing boost, but if you are hesitating about whether or not to see this rare revival that has transferred from the tiny Jermyn Street to the larger Arts Theatre, please don't. It's magnificent.
Central among its magnificences is the performance of Atkins as Maddy Rooney, who sets off down an Irish country lane to meet her husband at the station. "I suppose you wouldn't be in need of a small load of dung?" enquires the first of her several encounters on the way, Christy (Ruairi Conaghan). "Dung? What class of dung?" comes her cool and flirtatious reply.
It's a typical line from a woman who, like so many of Beckett's creations, wraps her inner torments of guilt, loss and sexual frustration in a heavy coat of dark humour. As her odyssey continues her thoughts constantly return to Minnie, a long lost child.
Other encounters include the limo-driving Mr Slocum (Trevor Cooper), who Maddy persuades to help her into his car by manhandling her buttocks (she has a thing about buttocks, particularly horse's). And the pious Miss Fitt (Catherine Cusack), whose revery in church prevents her from being able to see the collection bowl.
When her blind and irascible husband (Gambon) finally staggers off the delayed train he castigates his wife for coming. But soon they're negotiating a difficult step together as their return journey begins: in their often fractious discussions Mrs Rooney gives as good as she gets.
It's not until the ambiguous and harrowing finale that the division in their marriage is laid bare: And it's here that Gambon unleashes a moment of true greatness, little glimpsed in the run-up. As the reason for the train's delay is relayed by station master Mr Barrell (James Hayes), his cry of anguish rattles the bones.
Nunn's production can be criticised for its contrivance of presenting a staged radio play with the incongruous combination of scripts, mics, full costume and props. But nevertheless this is a beautiful, tender chamber piece that reveals the human side of the oft-remote Irish poet, not to mention the opportunity to see some masters of the stage at close quarters.
- Theo Bosanquet
NOTE: The following FOUR STAR review dates from October 2012, and this production's premiere at Jermyn Street Theatre
In "theatricalising" Beckett’s great 1957 radio play, Trevor Nunn and his cast, especially Eileen Atkins, do a fine job of silhouetting the rich Dublin character of Mrs Rooney's eventful and often hilarious journey to the railway station to meet her blind old husband.
But Pan Pan's production in Dublin last year, which I saw in Enniskillen at the first International Beckett Festival in August, maintained the play's mysterious beauty far more tantalisingly by keeping the actors out of sight (recorded in the dark) while the audience sat in rocking chairs in the middle of a sound and light show.
Still, it's a treat to see Atkins, script in hand, intoning tremulously, like Edna O'Brien in a house-coat and brown hat, shuffling along a country lane fraught with memories of lost children, days at the market and the races, and the old woman in the big house bathed in Schubert.
Giving a literal presence to these voices distorts the play; it should come at you out of the dark, like the train itself at the end, conjured with a terrific noise and dazzling light show in the Irish premiere. Nunn's actors sit on chairs at the side, fumble with scripts, bumble about under old-fashioned radio mikes; it's a pretence of a radio play straining to be something else.
And it is, I suppose, something else, not just to have Atkins up close and personal in this tiny space, but Michael Gambon, too, looming over the final 40 minutes as a bespectacled blind old Rooney (still reading his lines!) who’s “witnessed,” even caused, a disaster on the line, clucking his teeth and salivating seditiously in the void.
Beckett's idea of theatre was nothing happening; this play, more like his novels, is a deliberately ironic retort in which sound is everything. So Nunn's staging is a bit of a contravening bastard, and downright bizarre when actors pad across the stage out of synch with their own footsteps, veering towards The Goon Show.
It’s all highly enjoyable, if over-inflated, running at 80 minutes, with delicious little pop-up performances, too, from Gerard Horan as the tight-lipped, put-upon clerk of the race course who gives Mrs Rooney a lift in his cardboard cut-out motorcar (“I’m coming, give me time, I’m as stiff as yourself”); an unrecognisably Captain Birdseye-like Frank Grimes as a puffing bicyclist; Catherine Cusack as a God-fearing spinster; James Hayes as the dyspeptic station-master; and Ruairi Conaghan as the smiling boy with a dung cart.