All That Fall: Persuading Beckett

One of Samuel Beckett’s most acclaimed and accessible plays, All That Fall is also one of his least known. The writer’s friend and biographer Jim Knowlson explains why – and why it is “too good, too funny and too moving” to be left on the shelf.

Michael Gambon and Eilenn Atkins in Trevor Nunn’s 2012 “radio-style” staging

When Beckett’s first radio play was broadcast in 1957, Roy Walker wrote in The Tribune that ‘All that Fall is, I insist, the most important and irresistible new play for radio since Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood three Januaries ago.’

Inspired by boyhood memories of his native village of Foxrock, County Dublin, it is certainly one of Beckett’s most accessible plays but it is not nearly as well known as his stage works. Radio plays are rarely re-recorded or indeed replayed, and because Beckett was firmly opposed to the live staging of his radio plays, it has only occasionally been performed in theatres.

His letters to friends reveal clearly why he did not want it to be staged. To his American publisher Barney Rosset, he wrote that the play was ‘a radio text, for voices, not bodies’, commenting ‘it is no more theatre thanEndgame is radio and to “act” it is to kill it.’ In fact, it depended, he added, on ‘coming out of the dark’ for any quality it had, saying ‘frankly the thought of All that Fall on a stage, however discreetly, is intolerable to me.’

In 1963 he refused the eminent Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman permission to stage it with another of his radio plays Embers. He refused his favored American director, Alan Schneider, writing in 1974 that the play ‘is really for radio only’.

He even held out against Laurence Olivier.

When he allowed his friend Deryk Mendel, to stage a production in Berlin in 1966, he thought what he was authorizing was a straightforward reading. Mendel once admitted to me privately that he was ‘praying to God that Sam wouldn’t see any photographs, as I rather cheated on it, you see’.

He agreed to a film because he understood it would be directed by Alain Resnais whose documentary about the Holocaust had thought “very fine”. But he bitterly regretted the ‘disastrous results’ of the eventual television version broadcast on ORTF in 1963, directed by Michel Mitrani.

However, he sometimes referred to the changes that would be required if it were to be staged, and so it may be that, given time and a director whose work he respected, he might just have relented, as he did in many other cases. If Alain Resnais had gone ahead and made a success of the transfer from radio to film, his attitude to a staging in the theatre might have altered. We shall never know.

Pan Pan theatre company sat its audience members in rocking chairs under light bulbs to listen to the play. Photo by Ros Kavanagh

Since Beckett’s death, the literary executor and the Beckett Estate have continued to oppose the staging of All That Fall. One or two variants have been allowed. Trevor Nunn’s 2012 production at the 70 seat Jermyn Street Theatre simulated a radio production, with microphones and sound effects visible as if the audience were evesdropping on a recording. In 2011, the Irish theatre company Pan Pan sat its audience in rocking chairs, naked light bulbs above them like stars, but with most of the play taking place in the dark.

The most fully staged production was the late Bill Gaskill’s, with RADA students in 2008. In a thrilling production, no-one pretended that they were part of anything other than an imagined theatrical world. Mime, caricature and farce ruled and though there were young actors aged artificially by make-up, there was no insistence on making them look convincingly old. It was authorized as a ‘one-off’ and non-commercial production, and Gaskill himself was turned down when he wanted to restage it.

One can understand why Beckett did not want to ‘mix his media’: he had specifically chosen what he thought would work on the radio. In this light, Max Stafford-Clark’s idea of giving the spectators eye masks is a genial one. The audience remains free to imagine Mrs Rooney as, in her own words, ‘a big fat jelly’; and the various picturesque characters she encounters on her way to the railway station live in the mind’s eye as distinctive figures through their voices only.

Max’s other key idea is that the actors move around and among the spectators. This shift in the location and direction from which the voices come creates a fascinating aural landscape: Mrs Rooney can at one moment be quite distant from you, at another very close, perhaps even resting in a nearby vacant chair; blind Dan Rooney’s stick taps past you on the return journey from Boghill station once his train has delivered him there after its significant and ominous delay.

With a live audience present to respond collectively, the play emerges as even funnier than it did on the radio; yet its dark themes of death and dissolution still come through.

Does All that Fall have a future on stage? Opinions will vary on this and whether indeed it should, but approaches such as Max’s are to be welcomed as a way of introducing newcomers to areas of Beckett’s writing that are less well known than Godot, Krapp’s Last Tape or Happy Days.

The play is just too good, too funny and too moving to remain the sole preserve of the scholar.

Jim Knowlson is Emeritus Professor of French at the University of Reading. He was a friend of Samuel Beckett for 19 years and is the author of many books on his theatre. He also wrote his biography, ‘Damned to Fame. The Life of Samuel Beckett’ (London: Bloomsbury, 1996).

Experience All That Fall in the Paintshop of Bristol Old Vic from 8-12 March. Find out more and book tickets here.

The original blog can be viewed here:

The Dog and the Elephant: A multitude of sins – Jack Johns, Actor

The Dog and the Elephant - Shoot Stills - Credit Found Studio (2)

Hello Bristol! My name is Jack Johns and I am playing Bendigo Barlow in The Dog and The Elephant, which is coming back to Bristol Old Vic Studio this February. It’s a one man show about a Bare Knuckle Boxer in late Victorian England who suffers with Tourette’s syndrome – it focuses on his relationship with an Elephant that he meets in a Travelling Menagerie.

Both Matt Grinter (writer/director) and I are thrilled to be coming back to Bristol Old Vic as this is production very much started its life here – it’s home. The idea was born in Bristol, we rehearsed in Bristol and we had our first performance as part of Ferment Fortnight last year. Since then we’ve been to VAULT Festival, the Pleasance London, LATITUDE Festival and even recently shot a film version of the piece – now we’re back! Though I’m hoping this time round I won’t knock over the set, which shouldn’t be an issue given that the set is minimal, but somehow I’ve managed it before.

The show has grown a lot over the last year. Every time we have performed at a new venue, we’ve been sure to re-rehearse for a couple of days. There is always something new found in these rehearsals. I think its because there is often quite a chunk of time between them, so you tend to come at them with completely fresh eyes. I think this is a good thing for a one man show, as a normal rehearsal period is absolutely exhausting and you can very quickly loose sight of the overall objective, you often can’t see the wood for the trees. We are actually just re-rehearsing for our Bristol run, and we’ve allowed longer this time due to technical changes, and a few script developments.

We had an interesting development with the show when we were approached by FOUND Studio. They saw the show at VAULT and thought it would make an interesting short. Their background is in animation, high end commercials and music videos. When we saw their work we immediately agreed as we could see that it was going to be a quality product. We have spent the best part of the year developing it with them, firstly cutting down the script with Matt. This was quite a tricky process as, timing-wise, it needed to be cut in half, but it still needed to maintain the main narrative. Inevitably some characters and plot points had to go; this process went back and forth a bit but soon was settled.

With this came new challenges. The new script was an absolute nightmare to learn, as I’m now so familiar with the stage text. Thought it’s essentially the same words – they were now in a different order, lines that didn’t finish in the same way, things jumping all over the place. Hell. It was harder than starting from scratch. We got new tattoos drawn up for my character – they play an integral part in the piece, and the in film version some these will come to life through animation. I had to hit the gym, which I hate, because as they say ‘the camera never lies’, you can hide a multitude of sins on stage.

We shot the whole thing in one day a couple of weeks ago. It was the hardest days work I think I’ve ever done, 10 hours doing a monologue on repeat. Bare Knuckle Boxers with Tourette’s syndrome are fairly high energy characters to play. Needless to say, at the end of the shoot I was on my knees, quite literally. Post Production is now underway and in a couple of months we get to see the finished product which we’re pretty excited about.

The Dog and the Elephant - Shoot Stills - Credit Found Studio (8).jpg

This has been an amazing and sometimes quite intense journey for both Matt and I. Being a one man show – it’s just me as an actor, whilst the show is written and directed by Matt – so it’s a small team of us two. In terms intensity, this is about as distilled and potentially claustrophobic as it gets. There’s no cast to bounce off, no Writer/Director discussions. Just two people in a room. For a long time. A very long time. Luckily, we are close friends and have worked together many times before. It did definitely feel like the most creatively exposing process either of us have ever been through – there was no one else to take the blame if it went wrong, just us. There have been highs and lows in bringing this production to the stage, but all said and done, we had a fine old time. We’re working on other projects together, and I was still invited to Matt’s wedding, so it can’t have been that bad!

Now I’m sitting with the script in front of me desperately trying to unlearn the film script ready for rehearsals, and the show next week. So I should probably get on with that…

Would be lovely to see you at the show.


The Dog and the Elephant returns to Bristol Old Vic Studio from 3 – 6 Feb 2016. Find out more and book tickets here.

Jane Eyre: Wild and Wonderful – Sally Cookson, Director

Jane Eyre - Photo by Manuel Harlan - LOW RES (1)

Photography by Manuel Harlan

What made you want to stage Jane Eyre in the first place – what is its power, and what made you start to envision it on stage?

The starting point for this production was Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre. There are several play adaptations out there already, but I was keen to make a new version and discover, with the company, what gives the book its enduring power – what has kept it on the best sellers list for the last one hundred and seventy years. I find it thrilling to excavate a text with a company of creative theatre makers because the possibilities of what you discover are extraordinary. At the beginning of the process, even before we went into rehearsals, I spent time investigating which elements of the story I wanted to emphasise. Jane Eyre has become known as a passionate love story, which indeed it is, but that is only part of it.

The voice of Jane Eyre speaks of passion, lower caste aspiration and female rage – it is a story of a young girl’s longing for fulfilment, and fulfilment on her own terms – a concept very much at odds with the dictates and confines of the Victorian society of her day. It was the first novel to give voice to the rising frustration and sense of injustice felt by women trapped in a patriarchal environment. For me, what makes the novel so great is the weight placed on individual human rights. Jane has a fundamental understanding of what she needs in order to thrive as a human being – unless she is nourished, not just physically but intellectually, emotionally and spiritually, life is wasted. Jane’s spirit and strong will, her peculiar and brilliant mind, her strive for personal freedom to be who she is – and she lashes out against any constraint that prevents her from being herself. I think of the book as a coming of age story, a life story as opposed to just a love story.


How would you describe this adaptation of Jane Eyre? It’s not a straight-up page-to-stage adaptation – why did you decide to devise this show with the company?

Rather than approach the novel as a piece of costume drama romance, I was keen to explore the themes and get to the heart of the story and characters in a theatrical way – and make it resonate with a modern audience. I didn’t want loads of authentic set and costume stuff to suffocate the story, so that it became a dinosaur of a piece, killing the essence and magic of the story. Michael Vale’s wonderful playground of a set and Katie Syke’s magnificent costumes suggest the period setting rather than imposing it, they allow the actors freedom to climb, run and hang off the set.

We are making bold creative choices in order that our version of Jane Eyre is as Wild, Wonderful and Thrilling as it can be, and in order to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. It is always daunting when youʼre working on a story which everyone knows so well, because you want to surprise and maybe challenge their expectations, without losing any of the things which make them like the story in the first place.

Music plays a huge part in this production, and Benji Bower fans won’t be disappointed. Live music is intricately woven into the story including traditional ballad singing as well as Minimalism, Jazz and Choral singing, to create a stunning score. It certainly makes our version of the story non traditional. The band is at the centre of the action, I’ve deliberately placed them right in the middle of the set.


The original run at Bristol Old Vic in 2014 divided the show into two parts… tell us about the decision to tell the whole story in one performance this time around. What are the gains and what are the losses here?

Our job with the transfer to the National Theatre was to amalgamate the two parts into one, which has been challenging. The trickiest aspect of this process has been to ensure we have a satisfying story arc. We quickly discovered that if we just cut bits and squidged it all together it felt wrong. We had to very carefully change the entire structure. It felt a bit like dismantling a car, laying out all the pieces on the floor and then putting them back together in a different order and hoping that the engine would start! We’ve cut over thirty minutes of material from its original form, which allows the evening to feel more intense.

Sally was originally in conversation with Shipshape Magazine

Jane Eyre returns to Bristol Old Vic Theatre from 21 Jan – 6 Feb 2016. Find out more and book tickets here.

The Madame MacAdam Travelling Theatre: An exploration of the outsider – Jenny Stephens, Director

As Bristol Old Vic Theatre School students enter their final days of rehearsals and the company ready themselves for their journey into our Studio next week with The Madame MacAdam Travelling Theatre, we asked Director Jenny Stephens what she loved about this poignant Irish melodrama.

Jenny (centre) in rehearsal for The Madame Macadam Travelling Theatre. Photos by Craig Fuller

Jenny (centre) in rehearsal for The Madame Macadam Travelling Theatre. Photos by Craig Fuller

When I first picked up Thomas Kilroy’s script for The Madame MacAdam Travelling Theatre, it was the characters of this Irish comedy drama that had an immediate effect on me. Richness of characters is something that I absolutely look for in plays that I direct at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and with this production we have an abundance of compelling multifaceted characters that steer fascinating intertwined stories.

Now, as we enter the final weeks of rehearsals, these stories have been brought to life by the students, and the humour and Irish wit has been beautifully coupled with sorrow and poignancy.

Like much of Kilroy’s writing, and the work of Brian Friel’s Field Day Company who first performed it in 1991, Madame MacAdam… is a funny play but also has a sad underbelly of unfulfilled dreams; of an exploration of the outsider. Behind the sharp comedy lies a haunting theme of a missing child, the backdrop of the historical Anglo-Irish political tensions and the horrors of the Second World War. Thrown into this mix are a group of extraordinary travellers who are suddenly caught up in the lives of the villagers; tensions build and cultural differences are exposed.

I’m never big on saying “this is the message of the play” – that’s more for the audience to decide – but I think Madame MacAdam… raises compelling questions around national loyalty and sense of identity; concepts that are universal and are relevant to us today.

If you like good drama, if you like good comedy, if you like intriguing characters, then you will love The Madame MacAdam Travelling Theatre. And I feel very excited to bring our students back to Bristol Old Vic Studio to show it to you.

The Madame MacAdam Travelling Theatre plays at Bristol Old Vic Studio between 30 Oct – 10 Nov. Find out more, and book tickets, here.

The Spooky Ship: Fear of the Dark – Dorothy Collins, Made in Bristol

Propolis Theatre's The Spooky Ship in 2014.

The Spooky Ship marks Made in Bristol 2015/16’s first devised performance as a new company. This process of creating a Halloween performance for audiences aged 8+ and 12+ on the iconic Bristol landmark, the ss Great Britain, will be the first chance for us to get a feel for how we collaborate to create theatre as a company. Our process started with research about the ship and her many passengers.

Upon our second week of being a theatre company, we visited the ship for a tour and initial brainstorm of ideas and characters. With a basic knowledge of the extensive and varied life of the ship, we explored all the nooks and crannies in search of inspiration.

Propolis Theatre's The Spooky Ship in 2014.

Some of the 12 cast members explored alone, some in groups – to either bounce ideas off each other, or to isolate oneself to try and capture the potentially spooky atmosphere of the ship. Our aim was to find areas on the ship that creatively inspired us, and perhaps triggered us to start to think of potential characters. More often than not, characters would emerge in our minds inspired by the general atmosphere and layout of the ship rather than any specific area; which gave us the opportunity to have characters moving around the ship on the performance night. Whilst exploring the ship, Propolis Theatre’s Spooky Ship performance loomed in our collective thoughts as we all want to create new, fresh characters for old and new audiences this year, whilst also living up to its success.

After wandering around the ss Great Britain for an hour or so, we re-grouped to discuss any initial ideas and characters; a list which formed our first draft, so-to-speak, for our performance.

Propolis Theatre's The Spooky Ship in 2014.

Last week, Made in Bristol returned to the ss Great Britain, via Bristol library and archives. We spent two hours reading real-life accounts of real passengers aboard one of her many voyages in attempt to add some colour to the primary ideas of our characters, and to inspire new ideas for our performance. There’s something about the slightly archaic and over-formal language in which the diary entries were written that not only entertained us, but gave us a feel for the time period of which our performance will be set; for example, “Mr Fenton never seems to see or hear anything. He walks about in a kind of dream, and only wakens now and then to play chess” from Rachel Herring’s diary.

Such extracts also helped us gain a strong sense of the prevalent British class division of the Victorian era which naturally infiltrated through to the community aboard ship. This strong divide gave us opportunities to create diverse and contrasting characters, thus hopefully keeping our audiences entertained on our performance night. Some of the diary entries, such as Rachel Herring’s, were already naturally scary and creepy whereas other extracts simply documented the mundane and daily life of the passengers. All records helped to gain a sense of the type of people and the types of events that happened on the ship during her heyday. With this new inspiration, taken from real events and passengers on the ss Great Britain, we once again explored the ship in attempt to place our more rounded and in-depth characters in specific areas on the ship.

The cogs in the devising process have only just started turning. Once we returned to Made in Bristol HQ (Bristol Old Vic), we had a meeting to collate all our ideas. We started by separating into groups and mind-mapping what makes us scared, what makes 8+ audiences scared and what makes 12+ audiences scared. Trying to not get too carried away with our imaginations in regards to creating scary characters is a task for us all; especially considering our audience demographic, but everyone unanimously agreed that the mannequins lurking around the ship shocked and frightened members of public of all ages. What is it that is so terrifying about these mannequins? They’re just plastic figures created to give a sense of what the inhabitants of the ship would have been like. In fact, they add a certain vivacity to the experience, especially combined with the different smells and sounds in the different spaces of the ship: they are a key element in the overall sensory experience that is the ss Great Britain.

Propolis Theatre's The Spooky Ship in 2014.

Perhaps its the fear of the unknown – no one is ever sure what is going to be around the corner as you explore the ship.That’s when the mannequins are at their scariest, when you least expect them. It’s that same twisted desire to scare yourself that almost made us seek out the mannequins, for the adrenaline rush of fear. Essentially, that is what our audience will be seeking when they come aboard The Spooky Ship on Halloween.

They will seek out the fear of the dark, shadows, eery laughter, sounds of scuttling; the list could go on, around every corner, all for the adrenaline.

Photos by Adam Gasson

Visit Brunel’s ss Great Britain this Halloween (Sat 31 Oct) to explore The Spooky ShipStep aboard from 6.30pm for an experience suitable for those 8+, and from 8.30pm for those 12+.