Theatre Review: Footfalls and Rockaby

Ustinov Studio (Theatre Royal Bath) until 4 December
Words by Melissa Blease

Were you to embark on reading and analysing Irish writer Samuel Beckett’s entire canon, the chances are that, by the time you’ve ‘done’ Godot and worked your way through Happy Days (Beckett’s far-from-happy 1961 play in which a woman buried to her waist – and later, up to her neck – ceaselessly prattles on about nothing at all to her taciturn, almost wordless husband), you’d be turning your attention to Martin Heidegger’s oeuvre in a desperate bid for light relief.

But when Heidegger proves to be a fleeting, insubstantial distraction and Beckett’s complex, linguistically challenging modernist masterpieces beckon you back for another spin on the existential merry-go-round, make it a quick spin and fast-forward a couple of decades from the story of the buried woman to Footfalls and Rockaby: two very short no frills, no thrills plays originally performed as a double bill in 1981.

Footfalls and Rockaby – Charlotte Emmerson and Siân Phillips in rehearsal

“1…2…3…4…5…6…7…8…9: wheel”: that’s anguished, clearly tormented, 40-something woman May – given extra-added, tangible emotional debilitation by Charlotte Emmerson in this production – every day, every night, pacing a corridor, turning around, starting again. We assume that the Voice (billed in the programme as such) counting the steps is May’s mother’s – or is it? There’s little differentiation between dream/reality, memory/real time or indeed, illusion/disillusion here – and Simon Kenny’s smart, stark set (a bleak form of catwalk for May forefront right, a cube containing a utilitarian rocking chair stage left, both outlined with tubes of white light) offers few cues or clues to enlighten us. From the get-go, a palpable feeling of apprehension hangs over an audience isolated within the confines of the Ustinov’s tiny auditorium – and the discomfit isn’t going to let up anytime soon.

The disembodied Voice (the unmistakably concordant, uniquely elegant tones of Dame Siân Phillips, whose corporeal incarnation of the role, later on, is equally compelling) continues. Is she cajoling, reassuring or mocking May? In Beckett world, all three impulses are one and the same. When Voice eventually takes to the rocking chair (and becomes, in the programme, Woman), the emphasis shifts from where she might be to where she might be going – or, perhaps, where she actually is: if not heading for death, then maybe beyond the grave?

A suggestion of a childhood catastrophe that has made May a recluse is left to hang in the stagnant air as the chair rocks, rocks, rocks and May paces, paces, paces, with the occasional mournful, ominous pleas for “More!” from Woman and references to her static view adding to the overall sense of heavy, heavy melancholy and emotional claustrophobia that hangs over the stage, creating an almost suffocating fog of despair from which we’re suddenly jolted by the words “fuck life!”.

But by the time Woman utters the defiant mandate, the energy to turn that flicker of provocation into anything more than hollow words has long since burnt out: the footfalls have silenced, Voice no longer rocks… and as Beckett himself once said, “nothing is more real than nothing.”