A few have tried to put it on the stage – Sir Laurence Olivier being one and Ingmar Bergman being another – but both were knocked back. Twenty years ago, Sir Trevor Nunn also made the request, but was denied. Then Sir Trev hatched cunning plan (which took him twenty years to come up with): How about putting it on the stage but in the manner of a radio play?
The thumbs up duly provided, I found myself on Friday night at the Jermyn Street Theatre amongst a crowd of seventy in the presence of Sir Michael Gambon (better known as Professor Dumbledore) and Dame Eileen Atkins.
The story is about the aged and humungous Mrs Rooney (played by the slim Dame Eileen), who journeys to the station to pick up her blind husband (played by Sir Michael), the people she encounters along the way, and the couple’s subsequent journey home. In parts it was funny, but as is the way of Beckett, clues are being dropped and there is an ending that is very ambiguous. Two days later and I was debating it, and it's still on my mind.
This was not a play per say, but rather a radio drama performed before a live studio audience (in compliance with the terms of the permission from the Beckett estate). Having grown up listening to radio dramas, when they are done right there is absolutely nothing that can touch them – the pictures you create in your mind are just infinitely better. Because of this format, there was acting, but there was also no acting.
This production was what I would term to be an 'enhanced radio drama', and it worked only because of what I think was a knockout, performance from Dame Eileen Atkins. Her voice captured Mrs Rooney, and when I had my eyes open, her face portrayed her very essence. For her performance alone I would say this worth seeing.* Having by far the biggest part, she carries the show and does this with what appears to be ease. Sir Michael Gambon, for his part, does as would be expected and expectations were very high.
There is a good supporting cast, but rather unfairly for them, all eyes and ears are on the two main leads, especially given that in such a small theatre you are not more than 15 feet away from them.
This was a theatrical privilege, but it was also hard work so I was glad that it was quite short – that, and I don’t really want to be too Becketted on a Friday night.
After the show we had a chance to meet the cast and get our programmes signed. Sir Michael was courteous but had been mobbed by Potterites the night before, so left quite quickly, but Dame Eileen was delightful and chatty – a real class act.
Second Degree paid for his own ticket.
*Sadly, this is completely sold out, and they are no longer taking names on the waiting list. However, if you are willing to wait outside until starting time, you might get lucky as there is a hard cut off and there is strictly no admittance for late comers. One lucky couple got their tickets this way.