Trevor Nunn seems to believe that his is the first stage presentation of Samuel Beckett’s 1957 radio play. In fact it was staged within a decade of its BBC radio premiere, and on several occasions since. I remember seeing – or rather, not seeing – a production in pitch darkness at Battersea Arts Centre in London during the mid-1990s, and barely a month ago this page carried a report from the Happy Days festival of Beckettiana in Enniskillen which included Irish company Pan Pan’s version. Beckett and his notoriously protective estate seem to have consistently objected to its being put onstage, but not always to have actually refused.
However, most stage presentations of the piece are not dramatisations but offered in styles that acknowledge its radio origins, for instance with sound effects, “Foleyed” live onstage, of Mrs Rooney’s journey along an Irish country road to a railway station to meet her husband, and then of the pair’s walk back. Nunn’s 75-minute production uses recorded sound effects, but his cast of nine give a kind of semi-staged performance, scripts in hand, on a bare stage hung with old-fashioned radio microphones and a red “studio live” light. Alas, this ends up looking less like an allusion to the piece’s original form than like indecision over how far to go one way or the other.
As the elderly Maddy Rooney, Eileen Atkins is excellent. She gives full sombre weight to what can seem, to a 21st-century audience, to be instances of Beckett parodying his own reputation for morbidity, as when a driver offers Maddy a lift by asking, “Are you going in my direction?” She replies, like a Hibernian Eeyore, “I am. We all are.” As husband Dan, however, Michael Gambon seems surprisingly semi-detached. I had the impression that he was not carrying his script merely for show, and he left me uncertain whether or not his Dan is blind or merely generally unwell, like his wife. The little 70-seat Jermyn Street Theatre has scored a major coup in obtaining permission for such a production and in the starry names involved – the entire run has long since sold out. However, on this showing it is not essential viewing, and on historical evidence not the milestone it claims.