Footfalls and Rockaby
Jermyn Street Theatre
Reviewed – 5th November 2021
“The audience is shocked into a rare silence as the lights dim to blackout”
Two short plays by Samuel Beckett are presented, directed by Richard Beecham, joined together and performed without a break. The combined running time only reaches forty minutes but every second counts. Putting the works together highlights their common themes: the rhythms of movement, the loneliness of flawed humanity and existential pain.
There is a totally black set (Design by Simon Kenny) with two distinct areas illuminated with tubular light (Ben Ormerod): on our left, Rockaby – a cube with a rocking chair encased within it; on our right, Footfalls – a raised catwalk.
Footfalls: May (Charlotte Emmerson) appears, startled by the light. Shabbily dressed in nondescript grey, she paces up and down – nine steps left, nine steps right – head bowed, her arms wrapped around her body, her hair long and lank, her face screwed up showing the anguish that torments her but which she is unable to relieve. May talks with her unseen mother and Emmerson barely lifts her voice above that of a stage whisper. In the intimate space of Jermyn Street every excruciating word is crystal clear. Charlotte Emmerson’s performance is painful to watch but masterly.
We hear her mother’s replies amidst chilling wind (Sound by Adrienne Quartly), but the fixed source of the Voice (Siân Phillips) suggests that this could be a voice heard only within May’s head. May continues her pacing (Emmerson twice restricted to eight steps by the limitations of the catwalk), and the strident ring of taps on her shoes resounds in the space.
At the close of the play, May dissolves into the darkness and a woman steps forward. The Woman’s Voice sings the nursery rhyme Rockabye Baby and Siân Phillips evolves from one role into her next and one play segues seamlessly into another.
Rockaby: The Woman (Siân Phillips) sits at the window of her apartment, rocking to and fro, subdued lighting catching the sparkles of a jewelled brooch on her black dress. We hear the woman’s voice as thoughts of memories inside her head. This is more radio play than theatre, but Phillips’ poetic diction is perfect. At the end of each short section there is a chime, a device that connects this play with the previous, and the Woman says quietly ‘More’. More memories? More life?
A spotlight picks out the white face of the Woman and the dark shadows of her eyes – a grotesque death mask even as she lives – until her head nods and she disappears into the darkness. The audience is shocked into a rare silence as the lights dim to blackout. No-one breathes. It is as if the soul and spirit of the Woman is passing before us. As the lights return, the spell is broken, and applause breaks out.
Reviewed by Phillip Money
Photography by Steve Gregson
Footfalls and Rockaby
Jermyn Street Theatre until 20th November
Previously reviewed at this venue: