Radio plays are a strange genre: They fracture theatrical experience, separating seeing from hearing, transmitting to a dispersed audience who share the event in time but not space. Samuel Beckett loved to experiment with the peculiarities of different media, and his All That Fall, written for the BBC in the 1950s, has loads of fun with the form while telling a typically ruthless story of decay and sudden death. Foley sound-effects abound; barnyard animals—voiced by actors—make their characteristic noises.
Part art installation, part listening party, Irish experimental theater troupe Pan Pan’s new actor-less staging of All That Fall—directed by Gavin Quinn, broadcasting at BAM this week—restores communal hearing to the piece. Seated in rocking chairs arranged akimbo around a large room—a sly nod to Beckett’s bleak chair-centric play Rockaby, perhaps—we attend to a digital recording of the play, while a fluctuating bank of floodlights provides spare visual accompaniment. The lighting—casting yellow glows ranging from sunny to jaundiced, in stripes, geometric shapes, and overwhelming bursts—sometimes illustrates sound effects, sometimes reaches for abstraction. Above our heads, constellations of hanging lightbulbs warm and wane—it’s like a Beckett planetarium.
A mordant fable of rural grotesquerie, All That Fall turns moldering Mrs. Rooney’s mishap-ridden journey to the train station to pick up her equally decrepit husband, and their grousing talk as they trudge home, into a chilly allegory of each living being’s abject hike toward death—full of sudden interruptions and embarrassing gaffes. (The grim proceedings are leavened by Beckett’s desert-dry jokes, and cameos by various odd Irish types.) As the dotards dodder back, we learn that the train’s lateness was due to a horrific accident, and we’re left wondering whether Mr. Rooney—not a big fan of humanity—may have had something to do with it.
Without live performers, we’re the ones who make this a theatrical occasion: In the half-dark room, we’re all part of the scenery. And it’s fascinating to watch your fellow listeners, haloed by ambient light, hang on Beckett’s words—many of which are about the terrible effects of time on the human body—or ponder his vast silences. The production toys with the borders between inside and outside the mind: As the wry voices sound in the gloom, it’s sometimes as if we’re inside the characters’ heads, or they’re inside ours.
In the piece’s final seconds, as the soundtrack fades away, the lights suddenly flare up—dazzling our resting eyes. In Beckett’s universe, destiny and justice are blind—and, for a moment, so are we.