“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.
“fiercely and fearlessly full of rich dialogue that explores some of the deepest questions of human existence”
“The Sunset Limited”, by the American novelist, playwright and screenwriter Cormac McCarthy, was originally published as ‘A Novel in Dramatic Form’. What distinguishes this from a play is uncertain. What is certain, though, is that the award-winning writer’s unique style infuses each word and phrase with customary flamboyant bleakness that holds our attention to an almost uncomfortable degree.
Devoid of any real theme or plot, it is fiercely and fearlessly full of rich dialogue that explores some of the deepest questions of human existence. In the past, McCarthy has admitted that he respects only authors who “deal with issues of life and death”. Indeed, his nihilistic, almost existential approach can be off-putting on the surface, but his command of language and colloquial style effortlessly draw us into this short, one act play. And once we are in, what keeps us there – in this case – are the performances of Gary Beadle and Jasper Britton who play the two nameless characters.
Referred to only by the colour of their skin, Beadle is labelled ‘Black’, while Britton is ‘White’. All the action (or inaction) takes place in Black’s sparse, run-down tenement building. Black is an ex-convict while White is a professor. Sounds predictable and insensitively black and white, but any potential stereotyping is rapidly subverted and quashed. Black is cheerful; an optimist and evangelical Christian while White is an irredeemably miserable atheist. It becomes clear in the opening scene that Black has saved White from throwing himself under a train. (The title of the play derives from the name of the passenger train – The Sunset Limited – that travels from New Orleans to Los Angeles). Black has taken White back to his apartment and taken it upon himself to save White from any further attempts at suicide.
Beadle and Britton captivate throughout as we watch them steer their way through the ensuing debate. Nothing happens, beyond drinking coffee, or Black serving up a dish of reheated Creole cuisine from his fridge. But we are shaken to the core by their two opposing worlds, and our ideas are shattered by the crashing waves of their argument. Just as we think we are safely buoyed up by Black’s rolling tide of positivity, we are dangerously dragged back by the undertow of White’s nihilism. It is a raging debate, but comical too. “I long for the darkness” utters White, “If I thought that in death, I would meet the people I knew in life, I don’t know what I’d do. That would be the ultimate nightmare”. Britton beautifully seizes on the savagery of this pessimism but with a deadpan glee that brings out the humour. Beadle’s bible bashing counter arguments come with as many absurd and self-deprecating twists that remind us that we are being entertained rather than preached at.
The two actors’ natural performances transform McCarthy’s writing into a kind of poetry. Director Terry Johnson pitches them together in a slow dance that keeps the rhythm flowing and echoing in our heads long after we leave the theatre. The questions it has kicked up refuse to settle. After all – there are no real answers for them to settle on. But we, the audience, have the easier task: we can safely discuss these questions of life and death in the bar after the show, leaving the characters on the stage to make the life or death decisions.
The outlook is pitch-black and harsh, and seemingly a dead end, but nowhere else is a journey to nowhere such a pleasure.