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Footfalls & Rockaby by Samuel Beckett at Jermyn Street Theatre

As with much, if not all, of the Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) canon, the stage directions are so precise that one production of a play of his looks, at face value, much the same as another. “The walking should be like a metronome”, so say the stage directions for Footfalls, in which May (Charlotte Emmerson) has the unenviable job of pacing the stage in such a way that “one length must be measured in exactly nine seconds”. In the second half of this double-bill, Rockaby, an unnamed character (Siân Phillips), rocks gently at the end of the day, possibly not to wake in the morning. Tick, tock, tick, tock: there’s a reminder here (whether it was intentional, I couldn’t possibly say) of how precious each moment of life is.

Siân Phillips (Woman) in Footfalls & Rockaby at Jermyn Street Theatre photo by Steve Gregson.
Siân Phillips (Woman) in Footfalls & Rockaby at Jermyn Street Theatre photo by Steve Gregson.

In the small performance space of the Jermyn Street Theatre, there are, remarkably, two separate sets, one for each play, with some decent lighting that not only makes each set sufficiently distinctive but also focuses the audience’s attention on what’s going on. May’s mother, voiced by Phillips, is heard and not seen, which initially gives the impression that she’s some sort of ghost, and while could yet be a figment of May’s imagination, the dialogue makes it known she’s ninety and not exactly in the best of health. The mother has a name of her own but as it isn’t listed in the programme I won’t divulge it.

There’s not much in the way of plot, though this is in line with Beckettian absurdist tendencies: May doesn’t get out much, except to the parish church, where she (if she is to be believed) does the same thing she does at home, pacing “up and down”. What precisely it is that troubles her to the point where she does not and/or cannot do anything else – or at least admit as much – is never revealed, but this is nonetheless a fascinating, if bewildering, look at untreated mental illness.

A lot of repetition occurs in Rockaby, but with each cry of “More!” from Phillips’ character comes increasing desperation to savour even the relatively mundane aspects of daily living. There’s a fight to continue, and while old age will get her in the end – the play seems to instruct someone somewhere, “Rock her off!”, suggesting that her rocking chair will rock so hard it sends her into the afterlife – I somehow got the impression that in the telling and retelling of the same story (albeit with minor variations each time), the play asserts that people ‘live on’ long after they’ve died, in the form of stories and memories that will continue to be told.

It is therefore almost neither here nor there that what the actual narratives are in this double bill are (at least for me) impenetrable. While one might be inclined to think a production with a forty-minute running time is not something worth trekking into central London and back again to see, the richness and depth of these plays mean that one wouldn’t want it to be any longer. In any event, it is always better to leave the audience wanting more than to outstay one’s welcome. An intense and intriguing production.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

There is no sleep so deep I would not hear you there.
A rocking chair creaks. Footsteps echo down a corridor, tracing and retracing the same path. An old woman hears a voice from beyond – a voice that sounds eerily like her own. In this pair of miniature masterpieces, Beckett dazzlingly explores his obsessions with age, memory, and the passing of time.

Footfalls & Rockaby


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