Now that Caryl Churchill has made the short conceptual play fashionable again at The Royal Court, it seems a timely move for the Jermyn Street Theatre to revive mini-plays from enigmatic ‘king of concepts’ himself, Samuel Beckett. Traditionally seen as part of a trilogy (famously with Not I at The Royal Court in 2014), Footfalls and Rockaby are on their own here as a double bill with a crisp 40 minute run time. This means those with dinner plans can enjoy a stress-free evening. Others, after a full night’s entertainment, might feel slightly short-changed.
Brevity aside, despite strong production values and high-quality performances there seems little to justify choosing the two-play format. Infuriatingly for Beckett purists, I’m sure, but also confusingly for the rest of us, pairing up the two pieces without a break implies direct links between the texts. Footfalls is about a daughter caring for her mother and Rockaby is about being elderly, but if Beckett had meant them to be about the same characters, famously firm-handed as he was, he’d have written them that way. Packaging his writing up neatly makes sense commercially but feels unhelpful and, to this reviewer at least, forced and inauthentic. I would love to know more about director Richard Beecham’s thinking but if there was a genuinely new insight or angle into Beckett’s work, I missed it.
Things are not helped by set designer Simon Kenny who has definitely packaged things up with flickering neon strip lighting. It is hardly a laser show but seems an unwelcome overly theatrical gesture. His combined geometric set also means Footfalls, as the opener, literally tiptoes around the Rockaby rocking chair we have seen stage right and can’t ignore. Charlotte Emmerson, as Footfalls’ downtrodden May, making painful step after painful step, is only allowed to cover half the stage. We don’t get a clear delineation between the pieces either. If you didn’t know the text, a clumsy snatch of a nursery rhyme, definitely not Beckett’s, is the only real clue we have that Footfall ends and Rockaby is about to start.
Fortunately, Rockaby is an exquisite piece of theatre in itself. Siân Phillips rocks herself to sleep (or is it death?) in a tight spotlight with her thoughts in voice-over occasionally mirrored by the odd breathy echo in the flesh. As you’d expect from an actress of her pedigree, it’s a struggle to take your eyes off her. Beckett’s hypnotic musings about reaching the end, best exemplified by the repeated line ‘time she stopped’ may or may not be to your liking, but it is undeniably powerful heady stuff. It is just a shame the whole concept of the evening seemed to work against it. The lesson is, perhaps, mess with Samuel Beckett at your peril. Footfalls, in which the complex psychology runs deep suffers because it becomes the warm-up act here; a first-half we’re not able to fully enjoy despite Emmerson’s excellent performance.
If you’re new to Footfalls, Rockaby or Beckett’s work in general, it’s hard to argue against this as a handy introduction. Nobody would judge you harshly if the short run time appealed to you too. Time is precious. If you’re a fan of the writing though, the story might be different. Yes, you are likely to leave the theatre with the final moments of Rockaby on your mind. It is, as with the best of Beckett, bleakly beautiful. The problem is the proceeding 39 minutes of this heavily directed and designed production never quite reach the same levels of intensity.
Written by: Samuel Beckett
Directed by: Richard Beecham
Set & Costume Design by: Simon Kenny
Sound Design by: Adrienne Quartly
Footfalls and Rockaby plays at Jermyn Street Theatre until 20 November. Further information and bookings via the below link.