The Theatreguide.London Review
Arts Theatre November 2012
After gestation at the tiny Jermyn Street Theatre, Samuel Beckett's 1956 radio play comes to the slightly larger Arts Theatre for a limited run, and lovers of Beckett and of extraordinary acting will rush to it.
Following the Beckett estate's requirement, Trevor Nunn has directed it as a radio play, on an all-but-bare stage with the cast holding and reading from scripts, though they do move about the stage and mime some actions.
The minimal story (Of course it's a minimal story – it's Beckett.) follows aged Mrs. Rooney from her home to the village train station. We'll learn eventually that this is just a routine trip to meet her husband as he returns from work in an unnamed city, but it is presented as an epic journey punctuated by meetings with a jolly dung salesman, a neighbour who gives her a lift in his car, and another good Samaritan who helps her up the steps to the station.
Each of those is a comic set piece, particularly the strenuous efforts it takes to get Mrs. Rooney in and out of the car. In between, Mrs. Rooney entertains herself with that one great pleasure of the Irish, and of Beckett characters in particular, moaning about how miserable she is.
Eventually her husband's train arrives and they walk home together, doubling some of the moaning and comedy of the first half until an ambiguously dark ending.
You can't say that no one but Beckett could have written this – James Joyce or Martin McDonagh might each have come up with something similar – but it is wholly within Beckett's realm, from the minimalism through the blend of low comedy and quiet despair.
It certainly is a superb vehicle for Eileen Atkins, that most wonderful of minimalist actresses, who can do marvels with a pause or slight shift of facial expression.
Her Mrs. Rooney faces life with a mix of wonderment and seen-it-all resignation – watch, for example, as she pauses to consider just before and just after saying anything, as if surprised by what she's about to hear or has just heard coming out of her mouth.
There's an able supporting cast, but the real acting glory is shared by Michael Gambon as Mr. Rooney. Though he doesn't arrive (actually all the 'offstage' actors have been sitting at the sides of the stage throughout) until the last third of the eighty-minute play, what has been up to then largely a solo piece becomes very much an equal two-hander.
Mr. Rooney is blind, and in the most private situations Gambon speaks with the oratorical volume of one who is never sure who's there to listen. He and Atkins quickly slide into the bond of those who could finish each other's sentences if they wanted to, making Beckett's elliptical and elusive language sound totally natural, and it is a delight to watch these two veterans making it all look so easy.
Things do get a little obscure toward the end, when news of an offstage tragedy resonates more powerfully than we might understand, but by then we have been fully absorbed into the Beckett universe in which everything is both strange and familiar.
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