Footfalls and Rockaby, Ustinov Studio, Bath

SAMUEL Beckett, Nobel literature laureate and best known as the writer of the iconic Waiting for Godot (among many other plays) is well known for his bleak look at the world and its inhabitants, increasingly minimalised as he grew older. He was born in Ireland and lived most of his life in France, where he wrote in French and English.

Now Richard Beecham has directed two of his brief late plays, Footfalls and Rockaby, for the Jermyn Street Theatre, and the production is being staged at Bath’s Ustinov Studio  until 4th December, starring Sian Phillips and Charlotte Emmerson.

Like all Beckett plays, they are mysterious, repetitive, illusory and open to countless interpretations. Performed one after another over the course of 45 minutes, they are set in two light boxes on the intimate Ustinov stage. In Footfalls, a woman, who may be called May, or may be called Amy, paces the floor – nine steps before turning and proceeding in the opposite direction. Dejected, dishevelled, imprisoned and without apparent help or purpose, she is tentatively talking to her dying mother, whose contribution is a voice from the side. There has been trauma in the daughter’s life, and it seems to be connected with religion and Catholic observance.

In Rockaby, a woman sits in her rocking chair, waiting for death. Talking, perhaps about a daughter from whom she is partially estranged.

The language is poetic, mesmeric, needing concentrated listening to catch the stray new word changing the nuance of the story. It is impossible to ignore the beauty and shading of the great Dame Sian’s voice, especially in these plays where the majority of her dialogue is recorded. Charlotte Emmerson, forcing the words out of her little-used lungs, can’t leave the misery of her childhood.

There is no spoiler-alert in telling you what is happening, because the chances are you will see it in a completely different way. When Beckett received his Nobel prize in 1969, his writing was described as “new forms for the novel and drama—in which the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation.”

This enigmatic double bill provides a numbing insight into dysfunctional family relationships, and into the wait for the inevitable, when, as Prospero says, “every third thought shall be my grave.”  That may not sound like a recommendation to see the Ustinov plays, but this is absurdist drama at its heart-wrenching best, brilliantly performed by two actors who draw their audience into an action they can’t quite grasp, but is never less than magnetic.


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