Beckett’s All That Fall was commissioned by the BBC radio back in 1956 when television was young and radio plays still occupied an important place in people’s lives. Since then, numerous productions of All That Fall have been staged in spite of Beckett’s instruction that the play was written “for voices not bodies.” Pan Pan Theatre’s director Gavin Quinn has taken this instruction to heart.
Unperturbed by the fact that the contemporary audience has little exposure to experiencing radio plays as a theatrical experience, Gavin Quinn has made a bold move and staged a play in which there is nothing to see. Seated in rocking chairs in the company of 60 other audience members, we share in a tribal ritual of storytelling; listening to voices take us into a world that gradually forms inside our minds (an experience more similar to reading a book than attending a theatre). Some audience members stare into the distance, many have their eyes shut – all seem to be utterly lost in the story, gripped by it as tightly as one does (if not more so than) by the visual theatre.
Although Pan Pan harks back to the origins of the radio play by recreating the vintage moment of communal listening (as families may have once done together at home), there is nothing old-fashioned about this play. The experience, in fact, comes across as extremely modern and conceptual, perhaps because the time when this was regularly done is long gone and to many, including this reviewer, it is a completely new experience. If Beckett’s play was not as brilliantly written as it is, and if the performances were not as gripping as they are, it would of course be easy to drift off. Instead, the play instantly sweeps us up into the world of the main character Maddy Rooney (voiced by Aine Ni Mhuiri), an aged woman on her way to the train station where she wishes to surprise her blind husband, on his birthday. On her way around town Maddy encounters various characters and interaction with them reveals her ability to simultaneously charm and irritate.
Beckett’s fans will be happy to know that the play is absurd in his fashion, although less obviously so than ‘Waiting for Godot.’ There is a wonderful black humour to it and his usual themes: of time passing by, of waiting, of expectation, and the sense of absurd imprisonment by one’s own condition. Although the play happens in one day, much like Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ (and the Irish accents only fuel the parallel), parts of the action are abruptly cut out and we are left with the episodic snapshots of Maddy’s day pieced together as a Dadaist collage or broken planes of a Cubist painting. Time is in fact treated in such a way that one could wonder if what we are hearing is Maddy’s dream rather than a reality. The treatment of atmospheric sounds also emphasises the unrealism – the rain, for instance, stops falling as soon as the characters start speaking as if what we are hearing is their consciousness rather then a world outside and around them.
As it exercises our hearing sense and our ability to employ our imagination in a hypnotic and mysterious way All That Fall by Pan Pan Theatre brings back the intended magic to Beckett’s play while celebrating the pure beauty of his masterful text. This is memorable ‘theatre’ and a brave and inspiring move by the theatre company famed for constantly developing new performance ideas, pushing the boundaries and surprising its audience.
All That Fall by Pan Pan Theatre played at the 2014 Sydney Festival.
(TEXT BY IRA FERRIS, reviewed for the University of Sydney)